Rebuilding The Web

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What is the lifespan of the Web?

Introduction

It may be hard to imagine right now, but at some point in time, the Web as we know it will cease to exist. Will the Web be replaced by a competing Internet application or will it simply evolve/morph into a completely different technology?

Can you imagine the death of the Web?

Given that so much capital has been invested into the Web, it is almost incomprehensible at this point in time to think that a technology shift will occur to radically change or displace the Web. But that is exactly what has happened time and time again to other pervasive technologies, such as the Gutenberg press, the telegraph, typewriter, audio/video cassettes, etc. Revolutionary inventions can and do get improved upon, and are ultimately replaced by something better.

Replacing the Web

The Web emerged as a competing Internet application to Gopher (and other private information networks) and eventually replaced its competitors. What has happened before can happen again. A replacement Internet application may emerge in the future offering equivalent features to the Web plus a whole lot more. What if the competing application to the Web offered a TV-like look and feel? What if it were easier to use, more secure, more accessible and cheaper to develop applications for? Replacing the Web may be a hard sell today but after another 20 years of the same old Web, wouldn't people be more interested?

Evolving the Web

When the Web emerged almost 20 years ago, it looked quite different from today's Web, then it evolved and there are plans to continue to evolve the Web. In spite of all the problems of the Web, it does work for most people and even after 20 years people still find new ways to exchange information and do commerce. But evolution can only go so far. Stretching HTML, CSS and JavaScript to the limit can only go so far. In the future, CSS may get replaced with a more powerful formatting/layout language with features that today are only available through Flash/Silverlight, or JavaScript may get replaced with a more robust programming language.

How long until the death of the Web as we know it?

The death of the Web as we know it will come about in one of two ways - through replacement or evolution.

If a viable competing Internet application emerges, the end of the Web will probably come about quite swiftly. Since the cost of maintaining Web sites/applications/hardware is very high, investment in the current Web would dry up rapidly if people and businesses were offered a better alternative.

On the other hand, if the Web is simply to evolve out of current technology, that could take a very long time. HTML5 is the current plan for the Web's evolution. HTML5 is very limited in scope, is based on current Web technology (HTTP, HTML, CSS and JavaScript), and will take about 15 years to complete and be fully adopted. More significant evolutionary change such as a new formatting or layout language could take as long as 20 years to develop and see adopted.

Conclusion

Regardless of whether the Web will get replaced or will evolve out of current technology, it is important to recognize that the Web as we know it today is a technology with a finite lifespan.

Public comments

1. Posted by bob milford
on Tuesday 2009-10-20 at 08:44:25 PST

Aw come on, is anyone thinking about, let alone working on replacing the web? My guess is NO. Replacing the web will never get approved by W3C.

2. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Tuesday 2009-10-20 at 09:03:04 PST

bob milford wrote: "is anyone thinking about ... replacing the web?"
You mean besides me?

bob milford wrote: "Replacing the web will never get approved by W3C."
Does it have to be approved by W3C? Even if W3C approval is wanted or desirable, W3C has a history of approving things after the fact. The FONT element was implemented by the browser vendors, which W3C approved after the fact. Another group, not W3C, initiated HTML5. Then, W3C, afraid of loosing control over the standards of the Web technology, reluctantly brought HTML5 into the W3C standards approval process.

3. Posted by Sean Richards
on Tuesday 2009-10-20 at 15:18:18 PST

I believe that the web as we know it will evolve from it's current incarnation and will not simply be replaced. The hardware infrastructure will be re-built, the languages will indeed change, however this will be due to a major shift in the evolution of the interfaces that people rely on to interact with this powerful medium. Think Minority Report. It will still be the 'web' however it will be far more integrated with reality. I highly recommend reading this article: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/everyware/

4. Posted by Rudy
on Tuesday 2009-10-20 at 18:54:08 PST

The computing power and human interfaces are improving at a stellar rate compared to the evolution of the Web. Have a laugh here http://ishtml5readyyet.com/

5. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Tuesday 2009-10-20 at 19:14:09 PST

Rudy, that site is funny and sad at the same time. Even if it took 12, 15 or even 20 years to fully implement HTML5, that would be okay with me if HTML5 took the Web in the direction that supported the vision described in the article Sean mentioned. So by the time HTML5 is fully implemented, the only interfaces we will be using are JavaScript based ones :-(

6. Posted by Adrian Anderson
on Wednesday 2009-10-21 at 21:44:24 PST

I suspect the web is less like the typewriter and more like the roads network. I think we're currently laying down tarmac for the future of communication and interactivity for many many generations to come.

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