The Dissolution of the Web

Nobody talks about convergence anymore. Eons (months) ago, industry analysts talked about a future where one device part television, part Internet-access device would provide rich, commerce-enabled content for a broadband world.

WebTV was a prototype of this vision, a Net-enabled entertainment center that was a comfortable compromise for broadcast and Internet content providers (audience aggregators). The future of the glowing box that the whole family gathers around in the living room seemed safe.

Since then, however, the convergence model has been replaced by one of divergence, spurred by the advent of wireless devices. In the divergence model, data is distributed to multiple platforms and appliances, depending on the needs of the user. Web content be it music, e-commerce, or news will be served onto multiple platforms: Palm-like devices, household appliances like the refrigerator, the automobile wherever is most appropriate.

Just as the written word is used on a number of platforms depending on specific needs (the book, the billboard, the business card), Internet bits should adapt to variety of platforms, breaking the shackles of the antiquated browser.

But this multiple-platform world won’t be based in HTML, which is basically a “read-only” medium. Code is being developed and improved that will take advantage of the great developments in Internet-enabled hardware that we are just beginning to see.

A few companies have begun to understand this, and as a result, have changed their strategies to accommodate and respond to this way of thinking about the Internet.

Ever heard of a company named Microsoft? After a punishing battle with the Justice Department stemming from the Browser Wars, in which Microsoft tried to leverage its dominance of the operation-system market to control the gateway to the Internet, the company has changed its strategy to adapt to the world of divergence.

In a speech last week, Bill Gates announced the company’s embrace of XML, a protocol that allows data to be exchanged intelligently among different devices, personalized to the user’s needs. Microsoft plans to dominate a world where the Internet is everywhere.

In the future, the “nexus” of information will shift from a PC-based browser to local, distributed, personalized platforms. Instead of using multiple web sites to gather information, that information will be gathered and assembled for users by intelligent software agents, served to the appropriate device.

The metaphor of the web as individual destinations that people visit will break down, and so will the idea that one web site can personalize everything for everybody. People don’t trust (rightfully) that any one service, be it My Yahoo or mySimon, will objectively personalize services for their needs anyway. Everyone has his or her own miniportal already they’re called bookmarks.

Smart companies have started to use a distributed approach to diversify their business models, straying from the idea that every web site needs to be a destination. Google, esteemed by many as the best search engine on the web, has eschewed the “portal” model that other search engines chased for a fee-for-service and revenue-sharing approach. Instead of trying to aggressively build and monetize their own traffic, Google farms out its searches to other sites in exchange for cash or a split of ad revenue.

Technology and the market are dissolving the web. This has implications for all of us who have learned to communicate and sell in a “come visit us” medium. The battle to provide more value than competitors do (and still make a profit) will become ever more fierce. In an age where machines talk to machines, the consumer will become more powerful to find value in a proliferation of choices.

The Internet is a leap in communication, empowered by technologies that will be continually replaced. The rate of change will only get faster. Those who can’t change along with it, continually, will find themselves obsolete.

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