Ask yourself this: Would you install ReadWriteWeb as an app? You might, if you were convinced that it did something useful for you, and if you didn’t have to pay much (or anything) for it. You may already have installed Dropbox, and services like Pinterest and LinkedIn are now smartphone apps. Can you foresee a time when you won’t need a browser to do the things you do online? And if so, would you miss it much?
Metaphors are fickle things. Given enough time, they cease to apply to the concept for which they were created (e.g., “conservative,” “socialist,” “reality show”) and just hang on as labels, often arcane references to ideals pertinent to an earlier age.
Just what the Web is today depends upon whom you ask. A recent list of what are frequently called the “most valuable Web startups” is topped by the following six entries: Facebook, Zynga, Groupon, 360Buy.com, Twitter and Dropbox. The common factor among them, in the context of everyday conversation, is that they’re considered Web businesses. The keyword here is “considered.” If you ask Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, Facebook already ate the Web and is licking up the remains.
Insert Cloud Here
Perhaps more than any other company, Salesforce represents the perspective of “the cloud;” and from this point of view, the cloud is the technology that is driving the Internet today and not the Web. Salesforce was founded in 1999, just four years prior to Facebook, although the phrase “cloud startup” has yet to be used to refer to Salesforce. Instead, when Salesforce itself becomes an investor in a new company, and it characterizes that company as a “cloud startup” as opposed to a “Web startup,” then by gum, it’s a “cloud startup.” Otherwise, it might be considered a “Web startup.”
The lesson here would appear to be that a company that builds in the cloud is building a platform like Heroku, or a mobile app framework like Appirio. But if that’s the case, then Facebook should be a cloud startup, too. If any company in history is responsible for deploying a successful platform, it’s Facebook. After all, company No. 2 on the list – Zynga – is a user of that platform, and one of the fastest-growing companies ever.
Which makes Zynga what? As the most important user and chief validator of the Facebook platform, Zynga is what Salesforce would perceive as an outgrowth of the online social phenomenon – the force that Benioff says is helping Facebook and Twitter eat the Web. More users are accessing Facebook and Twitter through mobile apps – or, as they’re being called more frequently these days, “apps.” As such, they are bypassing browsers, and in so doing steering clear of the one portal that most users associate with “the Web.” When someone the other day saw me checking Twitter through a browser, he looked at me as though I had just started tapping a telegraph key. “What are you doing??” he asked.
No more important symbol of the Web browser’s ongoing sublimation exists today than the validation of HTML5 apps in Windows 8 as legitimate, fully fledged, “Metro-style” apps. It may be Internet Explorer that provides the rendering engine, but the user doesn’t have to know this. To the user, an app can be just another program.
But to the W3C, the caretaker of HTML5 development, one of whose W’s still stands for “Web,” any methodology that relies upon a technology that’s an outgrowth of the Web, is itself an outgrowth of the Web. Thus Dropbox, which manifests itself for all its users as an app, and which is widely considered the most recognized “cloud app” deployed thus far, would be part of the Web. Put another way, the Web ate the cloud.
Tell that to Dropbox users on Apple’s platform, however. If Dropbox were truly the Web as defined by Tim Berners-Lee (the fellow who coined the phrase “read/write Web”) then the service should be freely linked to by others. Since Apple evidently has a say in that matter, whether Dropbox wants it to or not, surely the Web’s most steadfast advocates should agree that any platform whose usefulness may be limited by proprietary or political interests, should not qualify as “the Web.”
You Are Here
So that takes care of entries Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6. Now, 360buy.com is undeniably “the Web” (you use it with a browser), but we could start a little digression over whether it’s a “startup.” Indeed, it may be gearing up for one of the largest IPOs in world history – larger than Google or LinkedIn (which for more and more members, by the way, is an app, not a Web site). Yet since it’s a recent online outgrowth of an existing Chinese retail outlet, if 360buy.com is a “startup,” then so is Sears.com.
Why do these definitions matter? Because the Web is a marketplace that, like any other market, depends upon the power of location. As more and more people get their functionality, information and entertainment from services that they install on their home screens as apps, and as they perceive these services as independent from operating systems and even from Web platforms, traditional Web publishers will find their current locations being abandoned. Think of the downtown business district of a metropolitan area after the businesses moved to the suburbs. When Internet users don’t have to double-click the blue “e” to get to their pages, or type “facebook login” into Google to find what they want, any service whose entire viability relies upon Search Engine Optimization as their fountains of revenue will be endangered.
Things that get old online, age very quickly – like time-lapse photography. You may have noticed more services are running away from the “Web” metaphor. That might not be a bad idea, so long as they know what it is they’re running towards.
Stock image by Shutterstock