What if the web died but nobody noticed?

From Wired:

The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet
— Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, 17 August 2010

And I didn’t even know it was sick. And isn’t the Internet some thing Al Gore invented? Hmmm. In truth, it regurgitates something I’ve had to explain over and over again to people about the difference between the Internet and the Web. Sort of like the difference between the USGS 15 minute series as compared to a nice friendly tourist map.

what is the web, anyway?

Tim Berners-Lee, ‘early 90’s: “right, if you guys won’t listen, then I’ll do it myself.” I paraphrase, but that’s what it boils down to: Tim had An Idea. Nobody would listen to him, so he built it himself. At which time it seemed sort of, well, obvious. What one might refer to as “a V-8 moment”. Think chocolate and peanut butter. Or V-8, I suppose.

One original definition of the World Wide Web: “a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet. ” Somewhat dry, but it gets to the point: the Web is documents. Some may be static, some created on the fly, some from databases or mashups or other you-name-the-API but, as presented to the user, they are forms of a document. Of course, these days a URL may respond with data that isn’t at all human-readable – but that’s largely a presentation issue, isn’t it? Which brings us back to the browser.

Or, one can define something in terms of what it is not:

  • not networking technology
  • not hardware
  • not IP addresses

Initially, “the Web” was the part of the Internet accessed via a newfangled animal called a “web browser”, a specialized piece of software intended to access only servers configured to understand its requests. The “www.” prefix (mainly vestigial now)  to a URL identified a specific host that ran a web server, since most machines on the Internet at the time had no idea what to do with web traffic and mod rewrite didn’t exist yet.. And domain names were initially free (who knew they’d be worth something).

Ironically, one of the lasting results of the web is the W3C (http://www.w3.org/), the governing body which, 20 years later, is led by none other than Tim Berners-Lee. So we have him to thank for the web and he has us to thank for a job. You have to appreciate his staying power.

Perhaps my favorite definition of the web is from Douglas Adams: “The World Wide Web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form takes three times longer to say than what it’s short for” .

when does the web stop being the web?

You can type an IP address directly into a browser’s address field. Try using ‘72.21.207.65’ instead of ‘amazon.com’. Not a “URL” per se (I’m taking some liberties here with browser destination auto-complete, but bear with me for fun), a good old-fashioned IP address. Still the web? It’s still a document created and delivered to your browser. Is it the web because you’re using a browser? Or that the destination responds to web requests?

Does it really, in the end, matter?

when does an app stop being an app?

Traditionally, there has been an understated dichotomy between “application” developers and “web” developers. Mashups have really confused the issues. So much for the simple browser and straightforward web sites. Now you have data. And applications that can send and receive web requests and data. And different sites collaborate with their data.

Early on in the iPhone world, Steve Jobs told the developer community that they didn’t need an SDK, that they didn’t need to develop actual iPhone-native apps because they could develop “web applications”: web pages custom-engineered to feed data to and from the iPhone’s multi-touch interface and display. The development community responded by giving Mr. Jobs the finger.

making sense of all this (and I use that term loosely)

So we all get wrapped up in determining how many of the elephants in the room can fit on the head of a pin. But the really important thing is that an elephant with a pin in its ass is a dangerous thing if it’s about to fart, and a blind man will never see it coming.

Leadership and followship

In the original Dune by Frank Herbert, the main character Paul recounts being questioned about leadership:

She asked me to tell her what it is to rule, and I said that one commands. And she said I had some unlearning to do.

I’ve taught sea kayaking on and off for quite a while, including something called “Leadership Workshops”, a series of one-evening seminars followed by the main event: a six-day expedition off the coast of British Columbia, each day being led by a different team of two students. From before sunrise until dinner, that team was responsible for knowing the weather, the route, the tides and currents. It was their job to get everyone up, fed, packed and launched, then guide the group to the evening’s destination, ensuring everyone was safely arrived and properly settled.

Each evening, over a group dinner, we would discuss how the day went, providing feedback and context, sharing lessons learned. This was an especially interesting exercise, as each day’s newly-minted leaders had no cred with the group, and had no time to earn it – the rest of the group was asked to reserve judgment on the leaders until the dinner debriefing session, which can be a very hard ask. While the trip was designed to surface and discuss leadership challenges (and it certainly did), followship, or lack of it, frequently made the difference between a successful day and a ten-hour rolling conflict.

Project teams can reach this point as well, where everyone can practically read each others’ minds, the concept feels equally shared, the goals clear, the progress exhilarating. A tight team can sense when a strong leader is on a roll  – but even a strong leader can be diverted by an intractable team member. We spend a lot of time defining what makes a good leader, and rewarding those who meet those challenges. We spend considerably less time identifying and rewarding those members of a team who, by demonstrating great followship, help create an environment within which the leader can be even more effective and the team more successful.

At one point I decided to learn ballroom dancing, and eventually experienced the conversation that is constant, subtle and sublime when two people are in the groove. But as everyone in a beginner class discovers quickly, you cannot both lead. Our instructors, Walter and Nancyanna, would explain the roles in this way: “The job of the lead is to be clear and consistent. The job of the follow is to respond gracefully and maintain impeccable rhythm.”

Catching the next wave

We have a saying in engineering about improving something until it no longer works. Another one goes “if it doesn’t fit, force it – and if it breaks, it should’ve been replaced anyway.” Both may apply to Google’s recent short circuit.
ArsTechnica staff explain their attempts to incorporate Google Wave into their communications portfolio:

http://arstechnica.com/software/news/2010/08/google-wave-why-we-didnt-use-it.ars?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rss

I find it interesting that quite a lot of people take a few things for granted:

  • Email is good, but needs to be improved… somehow.
  • Sustaining communications with multiple people/groups over multiple protocols is hard.
  • The solution must be to roll all of our protocols into a single interface.
  • Nobody has yet found a way to successfully integrate all those in-need-of-fixing protocols into a single UX.

So email has become less satisfying, but IM, SMS, MMS, IRC, voicemail and plain old voice aren’t scratching the itch well enough. A few years ago, I resisted when my boss required everyone to be on IM. I told him that I thought IM as a mode of business communication was horrible. His response was that people 10 years ago probably felt the same way about email. Touché. But that seems to highlight the problem: rather than evolving a protocol of communication to offer new flexibility and features, we continue to add new protocols. A hundred years ago, telephones had no buttons or even a dial – you turned a crank to alert the operator (when was the last time you spoke with an operator?) to place a call for you. Then we added a dial, then push buttons, then call lists, voicemail, voice dialing, visual voicemail – all extending the ‘protocol’. We didn’t add five types of telecommunications networks – imagine a bank of five phones on your desk, each used for different sorts of communication – such desks actually existed at one time.

For quite a while, I’ve felt that, rather than try to develop a UX to integrate multiple protocols that have quite a bit in common, and in concert develop ways collect and curate disparate contact lists, what’s needed is an extension of a single protocol to meet modern needs. Standardize such a protocol, along with address book information architecture. The “communications apps”:

  • Email.
  • (Visual) voicemail = email with voice “channel”.
  • IM =  email + presence.

Note that I do not include social apps in this protocol. Nor do I include collaborative editing in the list.

While Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gowalla, Foursquare and 50 other services are doubtless valuable, there is no standard, and I’d argue there shouldn’t be: these sorts of apps, indeed even the “medium”, is under such rapid evolution that conformance with a set of standards would probably inhibit innovation.

Regarding multi-person concurrent document creation, the workflow is so different from messaging that I’m actually surprised that Google decided to shoehorn it into Wave in the first place. Sharing creation of a document by ping-ponging it between editors is rarely satisfying beyond a very small number of edits or editors (say 2). Incorporating that workflow into a messaging client hardly bodes well for either messaging or document collaboration.

That said, the architecture for an address book for communications apps should be designed to be extensible in order to incorporate information and access control parameters for social/other (e.g. content) applications as well as geotagging and provisions for future developments in digital signatures.

So what would the basics be for an ideal communications protocol? For starters:

  • Basic messaging capability (I send you a message; you reply, rinse and repeat). I include in “basic” everything we take for granted these days:
    • Address book integration.
    • Media/document attachments.
    • Group capabilities.
    • Mobile-class stability – this implies store-and-forward: I lose my connection (network drop, close my laptop too quickly, etc) and you still get my message.
    • Presence – you know when I’m available, and you know when I’m typing (ala IM as opposed to “see what I type letter by letter”).
      • Probably with on/off preferences that can be tuned to a certain degree for recipients/time of day/other or integrated as part of ACL.
      • PKI integration – you can verify it’s from me, and only you can read it if that’s my intention.

And the address book?

  • The usual:
    • Name/phones/emails/IMs/addresses/personal info.
    • Digital signatures/encryption keys etc.
    • Presence preferences.
    • ACL – Access Control Lists.
      • Who gets to see/listen to/download what.
      • Groups.

Really, it seems to boil down to email + voicemail + presence + more full-featured address book. Can it really be that simple? Somehow I doubt it – but this seems a worthy direction for exploration.

Bangalore impressions

I’ve tavelled to Bangalore a number of times over the last several months. Each time I go, I learn a little bit more, notice some of the more subtle things that escaped me on prior visits, discover more favorite places, people and things. Each time I go, I find I’m able to achieve just a little bit more grace in the way I move through this culture. A few of the impressions that’ve stuck in my mind…

on the road

Driving in India is a much higher-awareness endeavor than in the US. Lane lines seem optional, and one wonders why they bother – even veering into oncoming traffic is considered acceptable – yet you’ll find far fewer accidents than over a similar period here. I’ve heard americans claim they’d be able to drive easily in Bangalore with a little practice, but I have to call bullshit on it.

Conducting this eloquent chaos is the language of horns. Unlike lane lines, horns are effectively required – you’ll even find signs on rear  bumpersthat say – “OK sound horn”. And they mean it. And you’d better learn that language if you plan to drive there. A short toot that may say “Hi, I’m coming up on you”. A longer toot or quick stutter that says “Hey! I’m right next to you!”. A long blast that might mean “Dammit, stop crowding me!”

And yet anger, much less road rage, seems almost unheard of on those roads. Drivers appear cheerfully engaged in a way that reminds me of the “Whos” from Dr. Seuss.

But not all is passive on indian roads: intersections in particular seem ruled, if not by outright aggression, then by a resolute determination, a grim steadfastness in the sense of “I’m proceeding through this intersection, now, – thank you very much.” The faint of heart will sit, cowed, at such a junction for the entire day and get nowhere – it would take literally years for me to feel trained enough to be proficient in this flow.

Which leaves me the options of taxis or feet – and be warned, as a pedestrian here you are at the bottom of the food chain!

motorbikes

Motorbikes rule in Bangalore. I’ve seen vast parking lots of nothing but motorbikes. I’ve watched a single motorbike with the man driving, his wife riding sidesaddle on the back, a child between them, another child riding in front of the man, and still another child lying on the fuel tank. And the women never fall off. Imagine riding sideways on the back of a motorbike as it weaves through traffic, around potholes and over speedbumps. Go ahead – try.

color

With most species, it is the males that display color while the females tend toward a more subdued palette. Indeed, humans seem like a rare exception. And in India that difference is accentuated – while the men generally wear grays, tans and perhaps blues, the women are strikingly, beautifully colorful, wearing traditional clothing even when reporting to work in a technology park. It’s one of those cultural juxtapositions, a head-on collision between east and west, between historical and modern, that makes this place so intriguing.

tea time

In the tech park where I work when in Bangalore, large afternoon meetings are frequently visited by “chai wallas”, who bring trays full of piping hot chai and pass it out to everyone, an incredibly civilized way to break up the afternoon. In fact, I learned on my second trip that one could dial an internal number and have a cup of chai delivered to my desk, something I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get adopted back in Seattle.

vestigial limbs

Some traditions die hard. The caste system, for all the claims of reform, seems to have survived even if in some very subtle ways. It can be a look or a tone, or a reflexive cringe, or the use of the term “sah”. I’ve watched management dismiss food servers with an imperious twitch of their head, and those servers literally back away in a crouch. Courtesies we take for granted might be met with amazement or awkwardness.

food

In many cultures, food preparation can be pretty involved. In India, food consumption can be challenging. Indian cuisine is a rich landscape where just about every dish, it seems, has its own particular method for getting the food from the plate to your mouth. Bread (nan, roti), crepes (dosas), and at least a dozen or more types I couldn’t remember are all used differently. Some sauces are mixed on the plate when properly used. Some forms of bread are dipped but others are rolled up. And I am convinced that native indians have evolved special musculature that allows them to grab a piece of nan and pull off a properly-sized chunk of it, one-handed. It’s amazing to watch, like someone who’s able to roll a coin across their knuckles, a natural move that actually takes considerable coordination and strength.

And, traditionally,  it’s the right hand that is used. Historically, the left hand is considered unclean because it’s used for, well, things besides eating. Which is tough when you’re a southpaw, as am I. Using a fork in my right hand is a challenge, chopsticks are downright amusing or even dangerous. Indian friends tell me that enough western lefties have invaded India that they’re accustomed to it, but I’ve received some very surprised, even horrified looks.

Usually, then, I’ll simply try to eat for a while with my right hand. Always leave ’em laughing…