The Web’s Third Wave

Remember the first time you used a Web browser to access a document on the Internet coded in HTML?

It sounds simple today, but reach back in your distant Web memory and you may recall the fascination you experienced the first time you “went on the Internet,” typed in a URL, and saw a poorly formatted, probably pretty ugly-looking Web page appear out of nowhere.

Do you remember clicking on your first link, which shot you off to your second URL? For me, this was one of those mind-altering experiences that caused me to view the world differently. If every piece of information could be linked to any other piece of information, and all information was placed on the Internet… the opportunities seemed unlimited.

What I didn’t imagine was how fast the Web would happen.

Of course, the ideas behind the Web were not new when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first Web client and server in 1990 at CERN. In the July 1945 issue of “The Atlantic Monthly,” Vannevar Bush wrote an article titled, “As We May Think.” Summarizing the piece, the editor concluded, “Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.” Bush’s ideas predate modern information technology. They became the inspiration for a large body of work, most notably Douglas Engelbart’s pioneering work on early human computer interfaces in the ’60s at the Stanford Research Center and Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu.

In the late ’80s, I was working on some exciting research at the MIT Media Lab. We invented a way to create contextual hyperlinks in video. Though we imagined a networked world where all information was digital, our idea was to develop what we called the “tell me more TV,” where access to information would primarily happen through a new-generation interactive TV.

It took less than 15 years for the Web to move from a research project at a pan-European center for high-energy particle physics to worldwide ubiquity. It’s evolved dramatically from where it started, as a markup language and linking mechanism for text and graphics. Linking, whether in text or video, was about creating context.

Much of that context has been lost as the Web exploded.

In its first decade, the Web evolved from a focus on document storage and retrieval to an application and storage platform. This is a radical transformation. Two things drove this evolution. First, the Internet decoupled application location and access. It doesn’t matter where the servers are, because the Internet provides ubiquitous access, enabling tremendous growth of new consumer Web applications. Second, plummeting storage costs and the emergence of network-wide search engines fueled the information explosion.

This explosion of information and applications on the Web has led to a conundrum. In a word: clutter. We may know what we’re looking for and that it’s out there, somewhere. We may even have found it in the past. But we can never seem to find it when we need it. Applications are difficult to remember and use. Information is difficult to find. Moreover, the two don’t integrate, so making use of the information even if you do find it is hard. Witness our “dependency” on search.

Still, the quest for new and better ways, and thus the evolution, continues. In the middle of the Web’s second decade, a third wave of innovation is occurring. Having moved from document access to application access, the third wave is about simplicity, context, and unification. How does the consumer Web become fundamentally easier to use? That’s the next burning question — and challenge.

Not unexpectedly, this challenge is heeded from two opposite directions. Small companies, mostly newcomers, are taking a fresh look at old problems and developing innovative new solutions. Big companies are making acquisitions and consolidating, gradually merging previously disparate offerings with the goal of creating unified experiences through one-stop shopping.

Take a look at travel sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, Yahoo, and SideStep. They all want to provide you with a lot more than just integrating air travel, car rental, and hotels. The “small company” in the group, Sidestep, has a very nice user interface. It’s simple and interactive, demonstrating innovation from a little guy. Sidestep is also innovating with its business model: an ad-supported model, as opposed to transaction fees.

The consolidation phase of the Internet started a while back and will continue to gain momentum. Simplicity, context, and unification will be the backdrop. launched search service A9. It continues to branch out with ever more stores. I imagine it won’t be long before it launches some kind of travel service. Shopping, travel, and information, integrated in one unified, simple experience. That must be what it aims to do. Yahoo is no different.

Will this approach work?

I think so. Customers and their fickle loyalty are fueling the innovation ecosystem. Small companies will continue to innovate by creating new and exciting applications that simplify tasks and provide better context for information (and advertising). A few will be standalone efforts, but most will be acquired by the big guys. Larger players, in turn, will continue to consolidate and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to create unified experiences that make the Web easier to use, hence increasing the switching cost of the customer. They’ll create loyalty through stickiness.

David Cohen is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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