State of the Web

Time once again to step back and look at the big picture of what’s happening on the Web landscape. We’re well into 1998 and there’s plenty of crap raining down on us, as usual, that we’ll have to sort out as we move ahead.

We’re in a shakedown period as far as Web technology is concerned. In the heady days of the medium’s babyhood, companies were springing up all over offering new browser plug-ins, new content distribution paradigms, new technologies and new ways of allowing us to use the Web in our daily lives. Banking, shopping, travel planning, entertainment, education, you name it, somebody had a new angle on it. Since 1996, the biggest news has been Push.

For those who are still unfamiliar with the term (and it hardly matters anymore) Push Technology wasn’t a technology at all. It simply meant that content would be pushed to your computer desktop instead of you going out and pulling it in. The plan was that you’d subscribe to services and sites and they’d send you updated pages of crap to clutter up your ever-cheaper hard drive space (for example, Maxtor introduced this month an 11.5 Gigabyte hard drive, their DiamondMax 2880, retailing for around $450.00, or less than $0.04 per Meg) and all you have to do is sit back and welcome their ad-clogged content.

It started up in earnest with Pointcast, grew stunted wings with Marimba’s Castanet and found a home to roost in Microsoft’s Channel bar and Netscape’s Netcaster in those company’s newest browser releases. And what happened? Was the world so ecstatically happy with these chances to auto-download Disney that you can’t even search for stuff anymore? Of course not. Hardly anyone used it after an initial “what’s this do?” curiosity phase and Push is largely being repositioned as an Intranet solution to disseminating corporate memos and all that useless paperwork that drives any large company. Home users were too busy trying to figure out which ISP to use.

Speaking of which, AOL continues chugging along despite repeated reports of its imminent demise. MSN was supposed to kill it, but it ended up swallowing Compuserve whole. The flat-rate pricing would kill it because it would lose millions of dollars—but instead it gained millions of new subscribers and managed to survive poor customer relations press and all those damned interstitial ads that pop up when you try to sign on (I finally let my subscription lapse in January) actually seem to work. Who the hell would want an AOL Visa is beyond me, but never overestimate the American public.

Because if you do, you end up in Apple’s shoes. A company that (arguably) builds a superior product that was years ahead of the Wintel competition in multimedia support but whose market share is now down to less than 3% due to mismanagement, intercompany back-stabbing, a confusing hardware policy (no, we won’t allow clones—yes, we’ll allow clones—no, we won’t allow clones) and making the ultimate mistake, believing their own hype. They still have no formal CEO, they dumped the Newton, the Apple store was their “big innovation” even though Dell has been very successfully selling computers via the Web for over a year and the G3, though “up to twice as fast as a PentiumII”, doesn’t seem to have helped their fortunes. Apple owners are buying new Apples. Wintel owners are not.

Microsoft Stumbles Ahead

On the browser front, Netscape finally had to give in and release the standard version of their browser for free, upping the ante by also releasing the source code into the big wide world following the successful Linux strategy of letting the user audience dictate the product capabilities—and allowing them to build them, too. Having fallen from an 85% market share to between 50% and 60% (depending on which report you read) they had to do something quick, especially following a big profit loss and a Wall Street decline to its lowest stock level since introduction. Look for Netscape 5.0 to make its debut on March 31st.

Meanwhile, Bill and Co. fight the DOJ valiantly, managing to dance the razor’s edge of lies about whether or not the inclusion of Microsoft Internet Explorer code in the Windows95 and upcoming Windows98 platform constitutes a case of ignoring mommy’s warnings or simple differing interpretations of an injunction preventing them from doing what they do. MSIE 5.0 isn’t even expected until this Winter—assuming Windows98 ships as scheduled in the second quarter—but hints coming out of Redmond suggest the browser will be more ingrained with your Windows operating system than ever. Where does that leave Netscape?

Windows98 doesn’t have much new in the way of what you see on the screen if you already have MSIE4 loaded on your desktop. But support for FAT32 and the open upgrade pathway from Win98 to WinNT5 next year means you’ll probably want to use Win98 when it comes out if only to finally solve many of the internal glitches Win95 had to support to make Win3.1 software work. Me, I finally switched to NT with my new Dell and have to say I’m really glad I switched. As Gregory says, “It’s Win95 that works!”

Even though Microsoft has a strangle hold on the world’s desktop, that doesn’t mean there ain’t those out there who still dream of Something Better. The BeOS, currently in Beta for PowerPC chips, appears for the Intel platform on March 12. This probably means absolutely nothing to the mainstream audience, and I doubt seriously it’ll even make a blip on the radar, but it’s still nice to know that there are people out there who want something better and have the balls to try to make it.

What BeOS has going for it is freshness. Born from the ashes of Apple/IBM’s dead “Pink” project, Be doesn’t attempt to cram old technology inside a new suit. But its strong point is also its weak point. With no legacy software—no applications really at all written for it—there’s no killer ap that would persuade corporate buyers (where the real money is) to consider it.

Yet.

The Sky Is Falling

Mostly what we’ll see this year is a continuing downward spiral in the cost of hardware, particularly laptops. Screen sizes are on the rise everywhere, marginally so on portables just to keep them portable. 12.1″ screens are fairly common, with 13″ and even 14″ screens appearing on more and more high-end machines that cost less and less. Compaq is now using the AMD K6 processor on some models, kicking Intel in the shin and lowering prices further. Portables are becoming slimmer, faster and lighter. If only the batteries would last longer…

On the desktop, expect nothing really big until Intel’s 64-bit Merced processor starts appearing in 1999. RAM prices will continue falling, meaning the prices of motherboards, audio boards, video boards and all peripherals will keep adding bigger and better capabilities for the same or lower prices. The video board on my new Dell, a Diamond Fire 1000 Pro with 3D acceleration, AGP (Intel’s advanced graphic port) support and 8 Mb of video RAM retails for only $199.00, while the Matrox Millenium with 4Mb and no 3D acceleration I bought for my old computer less than a year ago was $250.00. So your question remains “do I upgrade now knowing that everything will be changing, or wait 18 to 24 months and spend the same amount of cash for a much better machine?”

The fastest growing market at the moment is for handheld computers. Microsoft (again) is entering the market soon with its own piece using WindowsCE, but it’ll have an uphill struggle against 3Com’s PalmPilot, the fastest selling computer peripheral ever. Most people don’t need these little $250 electronic organizers, but them that do have dozens of choices confronting them. Do you need a chiclet keyboard? What about Nokia’s combo cell phone/organizer? What signal does the demise of Newton signal, if any? Does anyone even care?

Another major question remains the viability of TV set-top Web boxes. WebTV still struggles for widespread acceptance, and although they’ve increased their browser’s (and box’s) capabilities recently so that most pages show up more or less as intended, there’s no proof that when people sit down on their couch and turn on the boob tube that they also want to grab the wireless keyboard and compose a few emails along the way. Windows98 fully supports PC/TV integration and paves the way backwards toward the 70’s dream machine, interactive TV. I still hold serious doubts—as a fairly avid TV viewer—that people want to interact with it. Frankly, turning a passive entertainment into an active advertising stream doesn’t seem like anyone’s Big Dream—except possibly Proctor and Gamble.

You’re Soaking In It

So where we are at the moment is in the eye of the storm. There are still swirling wisps of talk about dynamic new technologies that will change the way we live—even though most people don’t want to change the way they live other than to cut down on the crime and increase their income level, neither of which the Web is likely to accomplish in a significant way. Rather, we will hear more talk about the loss of privacy, more scare tactics about hackers (when the scare tactics should be about why the systems the hackers are violating are so easy to violate), more government involvement in regulating taxation, gambling, pornography and business just like they try to do everywhere else. But the heady days of “anything is possible” are over and dead.

Welcome to reality. Now go home.

On the personal site front, a subject near and dear to me as you might imagine, we’ll see (thankfully) less and less “home pages” of the Tripod/Geocities ilk and more “experience” sites that have an overt realization of the wider audience and attempt to speak to you via entertainment and information rather than just miles and miles of personal journals. There will always be that subset, but the fastest growing genre that I see are the personal sites masquerading as professional sites. Graphics are getting more sophisticated, people are borrowing interface and navigational properties of professionally designed sites more readily, owners are spending more time designing and thinking about the presentation as well as the product.

Additionally, the Web is at a stage now that it’s been around long enough to have been an intrinsic part of college student’s lives. This is significant because it heralds the coming of The Web Medium at last. One of my gripes about the Web, or rather the public’s perception of the Web, is that it must somehow relate to another medium. It’s like TV, so we’ll add channels of content and animate the ads. It’s like a magazine, so we’ll make it look flat and static and turn the pages one by one. When the Web is neither of those things. It is so much more because it allows communication through so many different channels that people of my age and older have had to segment the parts to feel comfortable with them. Email is like Mail. RealAudio is like Radio. Shit like that.

The New Providers, the college and high school and, hell, grammar school people (they ain’t kids, folks) are not held in preconceptions and see the Web as the Web. They don’t have to pause in the act of creation and ask, “Now what is this like? What do I want to make? How should I present this?” They don’t pause at all, they just do it. They can see the possibilities without realizing that they see them. So as they enter the job market, they will bring this new aesthetic with them into all aspects. They won’t think of the Web as an aside or an addition. It is part of their lives already.

What we have to look forward to I can’t even guess. The Web and its inherent powers and promise will start to bloom over the next 4 or 5 years in an ever-increasing fashion. No more retrofitted technology guesses built around prior expectations, and more building upon the strengths of what’s there. Like a child discovering what it can do, learning to reason and think on its own, here it comes bumping up the hallway, wide-eyed and drooling. Broken toys lie in its wake, its bib is stained with what it couldn’t swallow, its training pants are full again—so much shit.

But you just wait, honey. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet…

March 4, 1998

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