Please evaluate the following three statements: There is no Advertising marketplace on the Internet; Print will be a hobby for collectors only within your lifetime; The Web is the next and fastest casualty of tech disruption. Last year, given my ever optimistic approach to these matters, I would have wagered that the first two were certainly true in the medium to long term, but that the third was fairly unlikely, and that there was every chance that the Web would grow and develop as a format, and be able to resist all challenges for a very long time. After all, print in the book format lasted for over five hundred years, and if it would be an act of near-certifiable madness to try to create a print-only book publisher today, the fact that you can now throw off digitally-derived printed books from the print on demand segment of a digital process, and price it as if it came out of a long print run of yesteryear, means that having print remains an option for those who like serial reading with restricted cross-referencing.

But the Web? The wonderful, flexible Web? In some ways we have still only just grasped its potential. It was no fault of Tim Berners-Lee that eCommerce jumped aboard his good intentions for linking scientific research reporting. What they created, a shopping mall bigger than Edmonton, Canada, was a restoration of the shopper-as-hunter ethos of primitive man, and by making all goods findable, may have destroyed advertising as we knew it in the disaggregated world. What Berners-Lee intended for science has come to pass, though a combination of the residual controls of private sector publishing, the need for metadata and ranking above content, and the migration of scholarly communication into the blogosphere and twittersphere may be re-positioning the importance of URL-based connectivity.

No, its surely unthinkable. After all, we have struggled so hard to make the Web work. Back in the 1990s, I was chief stoker on many a crew determined to shovel everything that we had ever created or archived in print into the massive maw of the Web Moloch. It took over a decade to discover that creating things for the Web was better, that ex-print material could be a liability, and that digital-first meant, amongst other things, optimizing content design in favour of formats that echoed the way people were likely to use them on a screen. Surely all these hard-earned advances cannot be in jeopardy so soon? Some of us had just fancied that they had cracked it, after all!

And some have only just learned that Web and Internet are not the same things at all. While the world is committed to the cats cradle of private and public networks globally which carry standard format data in an Internet context, because here the IP protocol acts as a standard that locks them in, and change involves everyone changing at once, this is far from true when it comes to the constructions that sit on top of the network. They can change whenever enough people want them to change and a groundswell for change emerges. And having recently returned from Singapore, and then New York, I feel the groundswell more powerfully than I did last year. And this is not about WiFi and its not about the total engagement of mobile networks in the world we are building. It is all about how and why and where we carry our massive computing power around with us. I am typing this on an iPad Air, which is a powerful machine. Next to it stands a laptop which was as powerful as my original iPad of three years ago. Either of them could have run the Eurolex service of 1985, where I and my colleagues were able to distribute the case law and statutes of Great Britain (450 million words in secular terms!) to some 1500 law practices. These changes – Moores Law, nanotechnology, the Cloud – increase in impact. Are they the foundations of Web disruption?

Or do those lie elsewhere – in the increasing impatience of end users seeking answers, gratification, solutions? Sir Tim was catering for researchers, for whom enquiry process was a way of life. In the speeded up world of 25 years later, “solutioning” is moving away from enquiry and into the realm of prefabrication. For very many users and usages, the answer is in the App. No, I don’t want to search on search engines – they produce options, not answers. Give me the App. In a bar in Singapore, was I as naked as I felt – the only one without a smartphone in front of him, earnestly consulting a page of App choices? In the new Whitney Museum in New York, I was certainly the only person looking at Andrew Wyeth or Edwin Hopper with a (foreign) naked eye. When the machines in those young hands become as powerful as today’s portable devices – and there is nothing more certain than the fact that they will, time and screen size will dictate a major change in modality. We shall all be App publishers then.

But perhaps not publishers of Apps as we now know them. Think for a start that these Apps will have to be solutions engines. They will need to customize to user practice. They will need Cloud support for memory and computation. They will need to be up to date at all times. They will need to be fully responsive to the IoT environment, so capable of acquiring fresh data from us and our travels. They will be connected, and while I am sure that I do not yet know fully what “deep linking” means in this context, the great advances of the Web in knowledge connectivity will surely not go away along with the static, horizontal presentation that we shall come to see the Web as having entailed. Apps may be tokens for shared, community experiences, or solitary voyages that create shareable experiences. Above all, though, I would wager that in this phase we do cross a last frontier. While we provide the shell, the storage and some algorithms, the reader/user populates it and shares it, becoming in every sense the “publisher” in the process.

keep looking »