Analysis of IT news

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Web, 15 years later

Roughly 15 years after the World Wide Web became mainstream it's interesting to look back at the predictions of then.

The outcome? Our predictions were wrong most of the time. We all realized at an early stage that the Web would forever change a lot of things, but we missed the mark on pretty much everything else.

It's not Netscape who turned out to become the Internet giant but Google. People still don't buy their groceries online - they overwhelmingly stick to their supermarkets - but they now look on Craigslist rather than newspaper ads when looking for houses (at least in the U.S.), a deadly blow to local newspapers ad revenue. Some companies like Amazon or eBay leveraged being the first comers in their respective markets, whereas latecomers such as Google or Facebook were able to displace the incumbents.

Let's first look at a few false predictions:

  • Myth: the end of the middleman. The Internet was supposed to get rid of the middleman - buyers could go directly on seller's websites, cutting the middleman.
  • Reality: if the Internet has removed the difficulty of physically dealing with a business, it has introduce other hurdles: 1) finding the said business among the millions of other websites and 2) trusting the site enough to give them your credit card number. Face it: Google, eBay, Amazon or PayPal are middlemen, and they're stronger than ever.
  • Myth: the rise of the network computer at the expense of the PC.
  • Reality: over the last decade we've seen a huge improvement in the Web interface capabilities thanks to technologies like AJAX or Flash. As a result, users replaced some of their fat clients by a Web counterparts. But "some" doesn't mean "all". As a matter of fact, the Internet has created a whole class of new applications: IM clients, peer-to-peer clients, you name it. Even Google has released fat client applications such as Google Earth to have an edge. If there is a need for Internet appliances they won't replace Windows PCs anytime soon.
  • Myth: the end of brick and mortar.
  • Reality: there are some goods for which users are not ready to buy online. For instance, buying your groceries online just didn't catch up. Several brick and mortars stores have been hurt though, as a lot of customers go to the retail stores to check out the products but buy online the same product for cheaper.
  • Myth: the rise of an independent press and "citizen journalism". With the rise of blogs one could have thought that news would become more and more independent.
  • Reality: 99.999% of the blogs rely exclusively on information available on the Internet. So even thought they might have no strings attached, they nonetheless rely on information published by the Associated Press and alike.
  • Myth: the "push" model. Companies like PointCast advocated the "push model" where the information is "pushed" to the customer, as opposed to being "pulled" whenever they want.
  • Reality: the "push" model was a buzzword for a year or so. The closest form of push model is RSS - even though it's far from being used that much. The difference? RSS is a simple, open format.

Unpredicted outcomes

- The rise of user-provided content: the initial model of the Web was that websites owners would provide most of the content. Sure, in the 90's people had fun creating their own Web pages on Geocities et al, but the process was rather cumbersome and thus limited. But things got simpler and simpler. Blogs let pretty much everybody write their own thoughts. YouTube let people share their amateur videos. Wikipedia let everyone build a part of a worldwide encyclopedia. The content might be amateurish compared to sites that provide professional content (think of it as reality TV compared to traditional TV shows), but websites that capitalized on that trend sometimes reaped huge benefits. Ask the founders of YouTube, sold to Google for a couple of billion dollars.

- A rise of interactions among users: just as users provide a lot of content, some websites have enjoyed a tremendous success by becoming a mere medium between users - where the interaction between users become more important than content itself. That started with Web-based email clients (Hotmail), instant messaging services (ICQ), eBay or even peer-to-peer. One special class of very successful sites is networking sites. Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, but also all the dating sites where people are ready to pay a monthly fee - almost unheard of on the Websphere. This shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the first killer app on the Internet was the email, back in the 60's.

- Services we thought were commodities turn out not to be commodities after all. When Google started, the Web search space was already crowded. Yahoo!, AltaVista, Lycos, Excite, you name it. And nobody thought this was a particularly hot space. It's just about indexing a lot of pages, right? That's what Eric Schmidt thought before meeting the Google boys. So the lesson is: something you might think is trivial might become a hot market (for further information see also When will new giants appear).

- The rise of malware: up to 1993-1994 the Netiquette was rather strictly enforced. Post something wrong on forums and you would get quickly scolded by the community - when not viciously flamed. But when the Web made the Internet go mainstream and that monthly new users outnumbered old users, the Netiquette flew out the window. It started with spam, but went worse and worse as time went by. Worms, email viruses, phishing, you name it.


- You never know when and where will the next giant rise. In 2003 the Web space seemed quite crowded already, yet companies like YouTube or Facebook came out of nowhere to become some of the hottest sites of the Web. One thing though: we might see less new giants. There might be a lot of entrepreneurs who want to build the next Google, but VCs would prefer to finance the next YouTube - you make big bucks much faster this way.

- Users interactions are prime. The first killer app on the Internet - way before the Web - was email. Email's been somewhat replaced by instant messaging or texting but the concept is the same. And some of the hottest websites or Internet apps these days are just a medium favoring users' interactions: networking websites (Facebook, MySpace), video (YouTube), auction (eBay) or P2P applications.

- There are some basic human desires that will always sell. Dating sites might be the sites that have the least problem charging their users. Likewise, porn sites are a big revenue-maker. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. In France, during the Minitel heydays, adult sites were a huge part of the Minitel economy. But beside sex, people have basic need they want to fulfill so never forget this. And guess what? Human interaction is one of them.

- Any technology will be used for bad purposes.

- Take any prediction with a grain of salt because most of them end up being dead wrong. We tend to be overoptimistic about upcoming "revolutions" that never happen (the push model, the so-called new economy) - and at the same time we're taken by surprise by some other technology (the rise of Google).


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