Whither the web?

“Pushing the Envelope” from ACM <interactions>, November/December 2006

By Fred Sampson


To hear some of the breathless prognosticators, Web 2.0 will save the world, or at least the World Wide Web. As you might expect, I have reservations.

I recerntly heard someone who should know better state that Web 2.0 is AJAX (asynchronous Java and XML), and AJAX is Web 2.0. That’s not the case, but it might work for those with a limited view of the Web, such as the non-geeks who believe that the Web is the Internet (and the Internet is a “series of tubes”), much as in the old days when newbies believed that AOL was the Internet.

That said, it’s apparent that all the commotion is, in fact, leading somewhere. The developing Web involves more than putting lipstick on a pig, more than AJAX and appealing, pastel interfaces with pleasing interactions. It is about expanding collaboration, universal sharing, malleable identities, ubiquitous connectivity—and it’s about much more than the Web.

Discussions at the New Paradigms for Using Computers (NPUC) workshop at IBM’s Almaden Research Center this past July revealed the extent to which these factors are becoming a part of the everyday life of the connected masses.

Web applications are only part of the story. I mean, does anyone seriously believe that the browser is the optimal environment for delivering applications? Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie acknowledges that it’s not all about the Web. Ray was recently quoted saying that “I do not believe that the Web is the be-all and end-all of experience delivery.” Judging from tools and technologies that the younger generation uses, I’d say that the Web is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Particularly revealing for me was Sam Ruby’s description of how (his) teenagers use Internet technology. Instant messaging (IM) is the preferred method of interaction with peers. Email is reserved for formal interaction with teachers and parents. Cell phones enable constant availability, even providing location information. Sharing, especially file-sharing, whether legal or not, is not only normal, it’s expected. And the desktop computer is no longer a workstation, it’s a docking station: the desktop is where you go to update and charge your iPod.

Notice that none of these modes of communication require HTTP or any other Web-related protocol.

A few years ago, an enterprise application software company used the slogan “People power the Internet.” Today, it’s more true than ever: Internet use and technology development is driven by people, by sharing and collaborating.

It used to be weird for individuals to have a Web identity; now it’s normal. Sharing—sometimes sharing way too much information, as in the case of tell-all blogs and the ability of Google to search out data and events you thought were long-buried—sharing is not only normal, it’s expected. And expectations of privacy are long gone out the window.

We share in blogs, we share in wikis, we share in cell phone conversations in public places.

Despite valid concerns about accuracy and vandalism, Wikipedia is a valuable resource for many. And despite some implementation issues, wikis have an important place in the enterprise: they not only allow, but promote, sharing of information in near real-time. But they’re only as good as the participants and their willingness to contribute and update, constantly. We can direcct inquiries to the department wiki (“It’s in the wiki”) only if it really is in the wiki, and it’s up-to-date. If it’s stale, it won’t be used.

There’s still a strong inclination for peole to keep their creations under their control by posting to restricted Web sites or databases. The Zen masters say relinquish control, gain power. Ross Mayfield, founder of commercial wiki vendor Socialtext, says “share control, gain innovation.” Collaboration makes for innovation, and isn’t that what the future of the Web is all about?

We hear calls for innovation so often, and from so many sources, that the word is in danger of losing meaning. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Innovation feeds on shared knowledge and experience, collaboration, interactions. Even Isaac Newton (borrowing from earlier writers) acknowledged the sources of his inspiration when he said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” The new Web, the new Internet, helps us not only to stand on the shoulders of giants, but to find more and more giants, and to become giants ourselves.

All this innovation is going to affect how we develop and distribute information. From the perspective of an information developer (you might know us as technical writers), findability and delivery are just as important as the content: facts that can’t be found are useless. If the younger users of our information expect content in small chunks, we should be prepared to deliver information that way. I shudder to think of the challenges of delivering software installation instructions via cell phone text message, but that might well be a useful delivery option, providing exactly what the user needs, exactly where and when the user needs it. Or maybe we’ll provide instruction by podcast, updated by RSS subscription, and put task-oriented instruction in your ear. Or, at the risk of being lost among the ordinary and profane, we might provide tutorials in video posted to YouTube.com. (Shudder again. . .)

Whether it’s through Web 2.0 applications or through other existing and new protocols, I see endless challenges to and opportunities for effective communication. And isn’t that, ultimately, what interaction design is all about?

ACM <interactions> invites you to address the challenges and opportunities for Web applications in the March-April 2007 special section.


Mayfield, R. (2006), “Ross Mayfield’s Weblog,” http://ross.typepad.com/blog/2006/07/new_paradigms_f.html

Ruby, S. (2006) “Teenagers on the go,” http://intertwingly.net/slides/2006/npuc/

New Paradigms for Using Computers (2006), http://www.almaden.ibm.com/cs/user/npuc2006/index.shtml

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, Vice President for Finance of SIGCHI(as of July 2006), and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at wfreds@acm.org.

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2006. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in ACM <interactions>, Volume XIII.6, ISSN 1072-5520, (November December 2006), http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1151314.1151326.