Is The Web Really Just Links Or Is It Evolving?

Lately, Dave Winer has been doing a lot of thinking. Dave has been around for a while, so when he starts thinking about interesting questions, we should all be listening. However, I am not saying that we should be agreeing with him, just reading and forming opinions. First, Dave complains about mobile apps and how they are not what the web is about:

And all this business about apps is a real spoiler for suspension of disbelief. I’m clicking a link, expecting to learn more about what I was reading (that was certainly the author’s intent) but instead I get an ad for an app. If I seriously consider it, I’ve lost my train of thought. If I actually take the detour and install it, I’ve lost bigtime. The best way to minimize the loss is hit the Back button and skip it. But that’s a loss too. I clicked the link for a reason. And that was thwarted.

The main concept here is that if you provide links in your mobile application, then you should be linking to some information about the topic you were reading, not an advertisement for a different app. By itself, this complaint seems to be a bit of a stretch. However, he follows with another post a few weeks later that really explains his issue:

Every time around the loop, since then, the Internet has served as the antidote to the controls that the tech industry would place on users. Every time, the tech industry has a rationale, with some validity, that wide-open access would be a nightmare. But eventually we overcome their barriers, and another layer comes on.

Basically, Dave is seeing these mobile apps as trying to kill the web. If the app is trying to control interactivity by only supplying a “walled garden”, similar to what Facebook is doing, then the user really loses the power of the web. The core idea of linking gets lost in this scenario. However, what if the web is more than just links?

Prior to the last few years, people were very document-centric and reading HTML pages from a PC. Now, we have mobile devices that allow you to use the web whenever you want no matter where you are. We also had web applications that did not allow you to take your information elsewhere or integrate with other applications. Now, many applications use your Twitter or Facebook login in order to authenticate, and then post statuses or even create events in Facebook.

In order to support all of this integration, the web is evolving. The web is no longer just HTML. Last summer, I wrote about the rise of the API:

As the web evolves, much of that evolution will be powered by application APIs. Some of the APIs will be application specific, like the Twitter API, and others will be more generic like the various semantic web standards. All of these available APIs allow programmers to create more interesting applications, and potentially a new API layer on top of what already exists. What this means in the long term is that we are finally getting to the point where the semantic web had hoped to be, linking data between various applications and hopefully doing something interesting.

A web of links can be limiting when looking at applications. When looking at reading a news story, links make sense, but reading articles is only part of the web. By looking at the data available, we are starting to create a more interactive and informative web. Sarah Perez at TechCrunch thinks this could be moving towards a web of apps, but that post is more focused on mobile apps. As I said previously, mobile apps tend to be limiting in their own ways.

Think about the possibilities of using the various APIs that are available. I am not just talking about the social network APIs, I am talking about things like Freebase, a huge collection of data, or even data aggregator/providers like Gnip and DataSift. Using these services, developers can build interesting applications using data from various sources without worrying about what the Twitter API looks like.

These types of services provide a level of abstraction that developers are used to. First, you get the core APIs, then you start abstracting those APIs into something easier to use. Once concerns about low-level APIs are removed, developers can focus on being more productive with the new abstraction layer and start solving real problems. Once developers focus on real problems, that is when the real fun begins.

So, is the web just a bunch of links or are we finally getting a layer of abstraction on top of all of the web applications. This layer of abstraction is a normal evolution for developers, and we just need to ensure this is translated into more interesting applications.

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