Will the Web Survive?
By David Woolley, June 1998
This is the conclusion of my article The Future of Web Conferencing. I present it separately because it has its own relevance, apart from the article it was originally embedded within.
Ultimately, the future of Web conferencing depends on the future of the Web itself.
The technology of Web conferencing software tends to closely track developments in Web technology. In particular, most conferencing systems are designed to work well with the most commonly used Web browsers, whose capabilities are evolving rapidly.
But what is the prognosis for the Web as a whole? Is it here to stay, or is it a flash in the pan that will soon be pushed aside for “the next big thing?” For anyone considering a major investment of time and money on a Web-based project, this is a question worth asking.
All indications are that the Web is here to stay.
Although various methods of networking computers and terminals have existed since the 1960’s, none of them have even come close to gaining the nearly universal acceptance that the Web has. The Web has swept like a tsunami through the various networking platforms of the past: dial-up BBS’s, large online services like CompuServe and AOL, and corporate LAN’s (now more commonly referred to as intranets). Microsoft, Lotus, Novell, and virtually all of the other large corporations in the software industry have changed course as they have realized that they must adapt their products and strategies to the Web or die. This despite the fact that many of them had vested interests in other networking technologies.
Even software products designed to run on individual desktops, such as CD ROM encyclopedias, have adopted Web browser interfaces. Word processors, databases, multimedia authoring tools, groupware, and money management software have sprouted extensions to make them interoperable with the Web. Hundreds of new Web sites are being created every day. The Web is even seeping into places where there are no computers in the traditional sense: Web TV delivers Web content to the living room of the average couch potato.
The world has embraced the Web as its universal method for connecting every computer to every other computer. Whether the Web was the best possible choice for this purpose is debatable, but by now the question is moot. The collective investment in the Web is now so enormous that replacing it entirely with something else would be extremely difficult.
But other widely used technologies have become obsolete when something better came along. For example, CD’s have almost entirely replaced LP’s as a medium for recorded music. What’s to keep the same fate from befalling the Web?
Several factors combine to give the Web its staying power.
First, it is not under any one company’s control, and does not depend on any one company’s health for its survival. It’s an open playing field, within which anyone can compete.
Second, its architecture is modular. You can dial up through one service provider, receive your e-mail through another, and house your Web site at a third. You can combine a Web browser designed by one company with plug-ins designed by several others. You can mix and match software tools created by hundreds of different companies to build your site.
But the key point is this: the Web is not a single technology. Rather, it is a collection of many technologies that work in concert. It includes countless pieces of software and hardware, as well as the many protocols and conventions that allow these parts to work together. Some of these components, like the underlying technologies for routing packets of information from place to place, have been developing for decades.
To return to the music analogy, the Web is more akin to our entire system of recording and distributing music than it is to the LP. The LP was merely a component technology of a much larger system. When CD players were introduced, they were designed to coexist with existing equipment. They plugged into the same amplifiers and played over the same speakers as turntables and tape decks. Individual formats for distributing recorded music might come and go, but the recorded music system as a whole has operated continuously and seamlessly for many decades.
The Web will continue to evolve in much the same way, only faster. Ten years from now it will probably bear little resemblance to the Web we know today. But the change will be continuous and incremental, always building on the existing structure. Web technology is so malleable that there is really no limit to what can be done with this sort of tinkering.
The Long Term Future
The written word has existed for at least 5,000 years. It was an invention with vast implications, because it made it possible for human communication to transcend both distance and time. But writing was essentially a one-to-one medium. That is, a message could be read by only one person at a time.
The printing press greatly amplified the power of the written word by making it easy to distribute one person’s writings to a large audience. Publishing transforms writing into a one-to-many medium.
Now computer conferencing has taken it a step further by making it possible for a group of people to converse across time and distance. Conferencing turns writing into a many-to-many medium.
While the impact of conferencing on society might not be on quite the same scale as the invention of writing itself, it is nonetheless a significant development, having made possible a type of communication that was never before practical. Now that it’s here, it’s not likely to disappear.
A century or two from now, whether there will still be something called “the Web” is anyone’s guess. But as long as groups of people have reason to communicate independent of time and space, conferencing will have reason to exist.