posted by Matt Ward on Oct 30, 2010.
The web is an ever changing landscape, and is frequently the subject of various predictions. In this article, I would like to offer my own vision of where I see the us going in the coming years, based on what I’ve seen from browsers and both the distribution and increasing sophistication of web apps.
Ever since I can remember, it seems that we have been talking (to some degree or another) about the imminent future of this thing we call the web. In many ways, it’s probably an inevitable symptom of the technology that drives it. With seemingly rapid advancements in an ever changing digital landscape, a bright and glorious future can so often seem to be lurking just around the corner–even as relics of the not-so-distant past continue to hold on (IE6).
The question that looms, however, is simply this: what is the future going to look like?
I am not a fortune teller, prophet or seer and have no way of knowing the exact answer to this question. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone really knows for certain, but that won’t stop us from making our best guesses, based on a wide range of evidence that exists before us. I, of course, am no different in this regard and, after a few discussions with different people about this subject, I decided that it was probably a good idea for me to record my thoughts about where I think we’re going with the web–and why I think we’re going there.
Content is Not the Future
First and foremost, I have to say that content is not the future. Content is, and always has been, the now. I have heard it suggested that content will be what drives the web in the future, but quite frankly such a suggestion is inherently flawed and I have to wonder where those who make the suggestion have been for the past fifteen to twenty years.
Content has always been the most fundamental part of the web when it comes to the interactions of the end user. My earliest memories of the web involve moving around a number of (horridly ugly) fan sites about many of the books, video games and comics that I was interested in at the time. I consumed stories, reviews, pictures/screenshots and anything else I could get my hands on, and in so doing I was interacting with content.
Nothing has really changed about that.
Yes, in many ways the nature of content has changed. Today, we have interactive content through blogs, online magazines and other sites, which allow users to comment on existing content and, in many cases, even add their own. With the increasing prevalence of high speed internet connections and improved streaming technologies, videos have also really taken off and become a staple of many people’s general content consumption.
But none of these things mark any change in the fundamental importance of content on the web. It has always been central to the browsing experience. What these changes do reveal are shifts and evolutions in the way we may receive, consume, and ultimately even create content, all of which are simply varying forms of interaction that have no significant bearing on the fundamental importance of content.
It was important in 1995, is important today, and will be important as we move forward. Suggesting that content is the future of the web is like saying that breathing oxygen will be the future of mankind.
Browsing and Working
One significant change that I have seen (and which I’m sure everyone reading this article has also noted) over the past years is an increasing movement toward websites where the focus is less about warehousing information and more about providing users with powerful tools which they can use to accomplish particular tasks. In many cases, some of these web apps (as we call them) are actually taking the place of dedicated, desktop software packages.
A service like MailChimp allows users to create and manage complex email marketing campaigns, complete with powerful list management functionality. FreshBooks allows creative professionals to track their billable time and create professional looking invoices, while DraftBoard provides the functionality to manage and collaborate on design mockups with team members. All of these things can be done securely, over the internet, meaning that we are no longer necessarily tied to the particular computer on which a native desktop application may reside.
Ultimately, this has really started to change the landscape of the web. Not only are we using it to search for, find and consume content and information. We have now started to use it as a tool for productivity, and the act of “browsing” has become only part of what we do online. That, in and off itself, has some interesting implications for the future of the web, and the direction that I think we are likely to see things heading in over the next five to ten years.
The App Revolution
A few months ago, I wrote an article about reinventing ourselves as designers, in which I discussed the possible need for web designers to expand their knowledge base and begin moving into the ever expanding world of mobile app design. I still think that a lot of what I talked about in that article is applicable (things haven’t changed that much over two months), and since then I’ve had to field my first inquiries as to whether or not I create apps (I don’t – yet). This has only solidified my beliefs in this area.
With all the success if the iPhone, iPod Touch and now the iPad, the concept of the app store has become a huge success. Couple that with Apple’s recent announcement that they will be bringing a native app store to Lion – the next installment of OS X – and it becomes clear that this concept of accessible and easily purchased apps is becoming increasingly popular.
So, what does this have to do with the future of the web? Am I suggesting that everything will be done through apps? In a sense. But let’s take a step back for a moment and realize that “apps” are really nothing new. You’ve probably been using them for years before the iProducts were released. Any native program on your desktop, regardless of the operating system that you are using, is essentially an application. Microsoft Word is an application. So is Photoshop, or Painter, or any of the myriad of games that you play.
All Apple, and its various competitors, have done is taken this concept, given it a truncated name (app instead of application), repackaged it in a sleek mobile format and sold it back to us with resounding success. Nowadays, everyone and their mother is getting their own app, and we are probably all familiar with the now common catchphrase “there’s an app for that.”
Now, I’m not trying to discredit Apple in any way. Quite the opposite. I think that the combination of their clever–and sometimes brilliant–marketing strategies with a quality, intuitive product is a huge part of what has led to their great success over the past several years. By focusing on the repackaging of the application as the modern “app,” I am merely drawing attention to a relatively recent development that has an impact on our current subject – namely, the future of the web.
So, it is with the concept of the app that we turn to an article that has recently been released on the Mozilla blog, about a new project that is being developed to facilitate the quick and easy installation of web based applications onto the user’s own computer, allowing them to be launched quickly and easily from a native browser dashboard.
The article also includes a very interesting video, which outlines the basic concept and shows some working examples of how the conceptual framework would theoretically function. I encourage you to watch the video. As you do, you may notice that the sample app store that they include in the video has a strikingly similar experience to the iTunes app store, both in terms of its general design and its implied functionality. Just an interesting observation.
Browser as OS
A few years ago, this might not have seemed like a real possibility. Sure, data based applications such as spreadsheets or word processing documents could be created with web technologies, but what about those more complex applications, like Photoshop, that I use on a daily basis? Web technologies could never hope to emulate that kind of rich image editing capabilities, right?
Tell that to Pixlr, a rich photo editing application that runs right in your browser!
As I was preparing for this article, I actually played around with Pixlr a bit and was shocked at just how much Photoshop’s basic functionality that it was able to emulate. There are layers, layer styles, blurs, blending modes and a myriad of other options that really astounded me. Obviously, it has not evolved to the point where it would actually replace Photoshop for me yet, but it is an impressive demonstration of what can be achieved in the browser.
With the introduction of <canvas> in HTML5, it seems to me that web-based vector applications are probably not that far off either. Pixlr could even integrate this kind of functionality to improve its overall appeal (since one of the things it is currently missing is Photoshop’s native vector support for shapes, which I use quite frequently).
That opens up a whole world of web-based possibilities, especially for designers. Back in the summer, Jason Santa Maria wrote “A Real Web Design Application,” an article in which he outlined our current tool set (mostly Adobe products) and ultimately showed how there is no singular application that is perfectly suited to web design as he undertakes it. Photoshop is bloated and, along with Illustrator and InDesign, does not have true-to-browser font rendering, while Dreamweaver lacks rich, image editing capabilities and extensive typographical control.
But what would happen if we had a web-based application for creating website? Jason begins to alludes to something like this when he suggests the possibility of a native, desktop application that renders with WebKit. This would certainly be a step in the right direction. However, with the functionality that is currently being demonstrated by Pixlr, the possibilities of <canvas>, and the native interactivity of the browser itself, can we at least begin to see the potential skeleton of a fully featured, web-based design and development suite that would streamline the process and ultimately increase overall productivity?
It’s an exciting possibility! It’s also just one example of the potential power of applications built in a browser-based OS.
Of course, I could be totally off base here. Perhaps the future of the web holds something that I’ve never even envisioned. Even if I am (somewhat) right in these predictions, we’re probably still quite a ways out from this kind of thing actually being produced, and (if it does happen) the chances are that it will come fruition through a series of stages. Still, I believe we have been seeing movement toward this idea for quite some time now. In addition to the rise in popularity of apps, Apple’s move towards a native app store for Lion and Mozilla’s recently released concept for Open Web Apps, Microsoft’s various Windows operating systems have had a native connection between its File Explorer and default browser for a while now. Open up File Explorer, type a URL into the status bar, and Windows will automatically know to direct you to the browser.
The primary difference in the future will, I think, be the fact that the OS will be the browser, in some form or another, and the apps that we use will be driven by the technologies of the web.
Obviously, there are a lot of questions that will still need to be answered and issues that will need to be addressed. What about security? What about the ownership of software and code (since the web is, essentially, an open platform)? How would we manage native interaction with peripherals? These are all things that would need to be addressed, but I don’t think that there’s anything in these questions that cannot ultimately be solved.
What do you think? This is quite different from the sort of thing that I usually write doesn’t have as much to do with design itself, and I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think the future of the web will look like?Post A Comment
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