The Future of the Web: What to Expect in 2008

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How will the Web of today evolve into the Web of tomorrow? The way we think of web development — as HTML pages on a server being accessed by desktop browsers — is about to change. The way we’ll access the Web, the way we replicate and accept data, even the formats in which the data is passed, are all changing.

I’m not a betting man, so don’t put all your chips down on one of my predictions, but this article details how I see the Web trending in the coming year. Much of this technology is available now, but it’s used among small pockets of smart, revolutionary people. As they cut their teeth on these new ideas and products, the technology will make its way to the masses. It’s my prediction for 2008 that these innovations will become understandable, both commercially and socially, and easy enough for anyone to use and access.

Some of these predictions already exist today for the alpha-geeks who are riding that cutting edge of technology. There are many ideas on that leading crest, and though some will fall away, others will prosper. This list represents the nine items I see emerging into the mainstream and becoming more mature in 2008. They’ll move from the hands of the alpha-geeks to the lives of everyday people.

1. Facebook Plateaus, and No One Cares

Social networking sites aren’t going to disappear, but I think the most popular, Facebook, won’t continue on its current trajectory. If you look at the graph of MySpace vs. Facebook popularity below (or

If we compare several popular social network sites — Friendster and Hi5, Facebook and MySpace — on the graph below (or online), we see that trend again: a slow start, substantial growth, and then a plateau. And 2008 will see either a new competitor enter into this crowded field, or the social networks will begin to chip away at each other’s customers. Facebook seems to the biggest on the block so, everyone’s championing the under-dogs. With recent privacy blunders, a general lack of trust in Facebook, and campaigns run to encourage users to close their Facebook pages, many users are beginning to realize that the best social network is just the Web itself.

Alexa Traffic Report for various popular social networks

In this last graph (which you can also view online), we see a comparison of the various social networks with Blogger.com, a free blogging platform.

Alexa Traffic Report for various social networks compared to Blogger.com

The Blogger.com platform alone is bigger than the biggest social network. If you add all the other free blogging platforms — WordPress, LiveJournal, and so on — to the mix, you can see that the hype of social networks just doesn’t compare to that of individuals with their own blogs.

As people get tired of fighting with corporate advertising, and money-hungry companies who are all too happy to put their own interests ahead of their customers, users will move to their own blogs and web sites. Social networks might be good for finding old friends, but so are search engines. If you want to get in contact with an old friend, blog his or her name, or try searching for your own name — you might just find that an old friend is looking for you.

2. Data, Data Everywhere … and Not a Drop to Drink

O is the new i is the new e. Years ago, when traditional technology started to move online, it be came e-everything — e for electronic. Email, Ecommerce, eMachines — you’ve heard ‘em all. Then Apple started to make iMacs, and i was the new e. I stood for Internet, then the iPod appeared and i didn’t really stand for anything. 2008 is the year of the O. O is for open. Open will be the hot buzzword: OpenID, OAuth, OpenSocial, and more.

In this new era of openness, data ownership will become an issue. Most people are unaware of the rights they have — or lose — when dealing with social network sites. Think about the comments you make, and the images you upload, who owns those? You spend months and years adding all that data. It should be yours, but this is not always the case.

Data portability is another key issue associated with open data. When you join a site, you should ask yourself, "how much of my data can I get back out?" It’s your data, your words, and your property. You should have the right to take all that with you if you leave. You spend valuable time and effort building it up, but guess what? Often, it isn’t yours — if you quit the site, you can’t take it with you. This situation is known as vendor lock-in, and 2008 will see more of these walls begin to come down.

Before you join yet another site, demanded that you can quit at any time and take everything with you. Sites that honor your rights will excel, and sites that don’t are doomed to collapse under the weight of their own unhappy customers.

3. Pull is Dead! It Was Killed by the Push

Services like Twitter, Jaiku, and others make it easier and easier for us to generate data almost in real time. That’s both a blessing and a crutch. We want that data to be open — to be able to freely move around — but at the same time, we don’t want various services requesting our RSS feed every 10 minutes and killing our bandwidth.

When a service requests your HTML, RSS, or any other file, that action’s called a pull — the service is pulling the data from your server to theirs. Pulling is pretty easy and straightforward, but the requester has to keep asking the source to see if the file has changed. This alone doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth in cases involving a small group of clients and vendors, and caching is not important. But pull doesn’t scale to the size of the Internet when you’re dealing with near-real-time data. Can you image what would happen if a site like Facebook pulled your Twitter feed every 10 minutes? Now imagine millions of Facebook customers pulling millions of Twitter feeds every 10 minutes. Even if nothing’s been updated, the service needs to make the pull request to find out, and that amounts to tremendous bandwidth usage!

The solution to this problem is to PUSH data between federated systems. A push system allows the customer to inform other sites only when an update is available. So instead of Facebook polling Twitter every 10 minutes, Twitter pushes an update to Facebook only when something new is added. The by-product of this approach is a huge bandwidth savings and a reduction in the delay between services. Previously, Facebook could be as much as 10 minutes behind your Twitter account, but with a PUSH system, Facebook is informed of the presence of new data at the same moment that the post is made to Twitter. Another advantage of this approach is that you can PUSH to multiple services at once. So when you update your Twitter feed, you could inform your Facebook/MySpace page, your Jaiku, lifestrea.ms, and other accounts, thus saving bandwidth exponentially.

The other byproduct of a push system is that it requires us to federate the systems and agree on a standard end-point and format. This promotes data portability and the strange side-effect of mixing and matching systems. I personally like Flickr for my photos, but some of my friends use Picasa. In a federated system Picasa could push an alert to Flickr to indicate that my friends have added images. Then, in my Flickr stream of friends’ photos, I’d see images that were hosted not by Flickr, but by Picasa — and vice versa. This scenario allows each person to use the system they’re familiar with, and at the same time, interact with friends on other systems.

One group working to solve this problem is the team creating Instant Syndicating Standards. In 2008, more groups like this will emerge to tackle this problem.

4. It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane … What is That Thing?

Be on the lookout for the introduction of more nontraditional connected devices. Cell phones or expensive PCMCIA cellular cards used to be the only truly connected mobile devices, but now, more and more devices will use cellular technology, but they won’t be phones that we recognize. The new Amazon Kindle has a cellular modem built in, which allows it to phone the Amazon mothership so you can download more ebooks. It uses a traditional cellular connection like a regular phone, but it isn’t a phone you could use to make a regular call.

The cellular world is morphing into something new to facilitate this evolution. We can see already that the iPhone is not just a phone — it’s a small computer with a cellular/WiFi "always on" connection. Nokia has been building similar dedicated WiFi devices for awhile, with its N770, N800, and N810 Internet tablets.

Even telecoms are getting into this new market. In the US, Verizon agreed to open device and software access to let any device that meets its specs onto the company’s network. As such, any home-brew hardware hacker can now begin to build something that connects to the Verizon network and passes data around. This facility allows for even more non-traditional devices to benefit from the existing cellular infrastructure.

Companies like Nabaztag have been working along these lines for awhile. In 2008 we’ll see more hybrid devices hit the mass market. People will become aware and rethink what they use to "be connected".

5. Working Offline is So 2007

In 2007, being online 100% of the time became more and more of a reality. As devices like the iPhone allow you to switch between local WiFi when at home and cellular networks on the road, there seemed to be little reason not to have ubiquitous connectivity.

But if that’s the case, then why, at the same time, have there been so many advances in offline storage and syncing? The Dojo JavaScript library continues to do very smart things with regards to abstracting local storage. Google gears represented another attempt at allowing people to use the Web 2.0 apps they love while offline. The nightly builds of Safari are support some of the HTML5 offline storage capabilities, and Firefox 3 supports this as well.

So who will win? Will 2008 be the year that we finally see ubiquitous connectivity, or will offline advances keep it at bay for another year? I predict that both will win! In 2008, we’ll see more and more web apps work offline. There are several reasons for this: no matter how connected you are, there will always be times when you don’t have a connection — WiFi, cellular or otherwise. Planes, for example, spring to mind when I think of places where we’re not likely to have connectivity. And this is where offline apps kick-in, allowing you to continue to work. Then, when you land and acquire a connection, you can send and sync away. The other situation that demands offline capability is the horrors of conference WiFi — you can get a connection (maybe), but nothing happens. All these scenarios are excellent candidates for offline storage and syncing.

At the same time, ubiquitous connectivity will become more and more of a possibility. Right now, we might be spoiled by high-speed connections in our downtown apartments, and free WiFi from the park or coffee shop around the corner. The silicon valley news about WiFi clouds are great, and provide an exciting peek at what’s to come, but keep in mind that there are places on this planet that don’t have running water — ubiquitous connectivity is not a high priority in those places. Most towns are somewhere between.

Ubiquitous connectivity, this "always on, always connected" lifestyle will grow in 2008, but there will always be a need for offline storage. Look for both of these areas to mature and grow.

6. You Hit Save, and it Disappears into the Cloud

With the market striving to approach a state of ubiquitous connectivity, there’s less of a need for local storage. Storing your digital life somewhere in the cloud is a scary thought, but it’s something that’s creeping in more and more — without your active participation. Storage in the cloud and commodity computing will begin to round the corner in 2008.

Storing data in the cloud means that you don’t save files to your hard drive, but to the Internet. You don’t know or care where the file is getting saved — it could be on a Windows machine, a Unix server, or some acronym you never heard of! Personally, I use web mail, which means that none of my email is saved locally. All of that data is maintained in the cloud on some server(s) somewhere in a data center. Wherever my email resides, my address book isn’t too far away. Both of these tools are backed much better within the cloud by my email provider than they would be if I was looking after them myself, and I enjoy the benefit that I can access to them from anyplace I have a connection. But it doesn’t stop with just email. I use Google Docs, so now more and more of my life is stored there, not on my hard drive. The Web provides a light-weight office suite that I can easily share with friends. Again, I never need to worry about backups, or remembering to save the most recent copy to my USB stick or email it to myself. I work in the cloud, I save in the cloud.

The next logical extension from data becomes the application itself. With web-based email I can always save the messages downloaded to my desktop email client. With Google Docs, I can save the files and work on them in Office or other desktop apps, then save them back into the cloud.

In 2008, we’ll begin to see a wider acceptance of applications presented as services. Instead of paying for a CD of software, you’ll pay a subscription fee to use the service. Applications like Ning, Salesfore, and others will become more accepted as a cost of doing business. Much the same way you pay a monthly bill to handle your phones and electricity, you’ll pay a month fee for your CRM or your project tracking. Many popular applications already work this way — 37signals’ Basecamp application is a prime example. Now both your data and the application are part of the cloud.

7. Go Ahead, Void your Warranty

I foresee that by Christmas 2008 home computer hardware kits will be commercially available. These kits exist in small pockets now — you can download schematics for free and go to your local shop for all the parts, but most people are too lazy. This year, a market will open up for kits that contain everything you need, and stores will appear to meet those needs — sort of like an IKEA for digital hardware, with no frills, and no spare parts.

With sites like Adruino board, building small dedicated devices will no longer be beyond the regular, curious person’s reach.

This proliferation of do-it-yourself hardware will affect the way we think about the Web, as specialized digital devices will begin to emerge. Devices like the BBC Olinda prototype, a socially networked digital radio with WiFi capabilities that allow you to see what your friends and family are listening to, are a case in point.

Companies like AmbientDevices.com have been creating small dedicated devices to read stock feeds, weather, power consumption, and other details from the Web and radio, and displaying them in unique ways to customers. The data we consume on the Web today through our browsers will be the same data that others are consuming in new ways on dedicated hardware in 2008.

8. 2D Barcodes Proliferate

Two-dimensional barcodes, like the one shown below, are nothing new — some are even over 10 years old now! These barcodes can encode much more information than a standard barcode you might see on the back of a book or box of cereal. 2D barcodes can encode over 4000 characters, which makes them ideal for more than just unique identifiers. Web site URLs are just one thing that can be encoded into these barcodes, allowing anyone who can decode them to access links to the Web.

A two-dimensional barcode

Until recently, other pieces of the puzzle were missing. How do you decode those barcodes? With some expensive barcode reader? And once you decode one, you’ll need to get that URL into your computer to follow the link! But now, with camera phones being more widespread, and boasting larger processors, you can download 2D barcode decoding software and make your phone your barcode reader for no additional cost. The fact that your phone can decode the barcode into a URL is great on its own, but it also reveals why people want this data encoded, rather than presented as a string. On a small device, typing is no fun, so anything that saves you from entering a 48-character URL on a keypad is a time saver.

2D barcodes can do much more than just encode URLs — business cards, calendar events, images, music, and more can be encoded for the cost of printing ink. That’s much cheaper than technologies such as RFID or bluetooth. In 2008, you’ll notice these black and white boxes appear more prominently in advertising and on products.

9. Geographically Based Search Makes an Appearance

I’ve owned a GPS unit for about a year now and I love it. Everyone I show it to thinks it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. GPS units are dropping in price, and software’s getting better and better as well. This combination of technologies makes GPS ripe for adoption — high-end phones already have GPS built in. With all this knowledge about your location, the metadata that’s collected will begin to give us alternative views of the world via the Web. Now, instead of searching by keyword or phase, we can also limit the results by geographic location.

Google Maps, Flickr, and others have already made Geolocation cool, but that’s only half of the story. I know where I am and where I want to go. I can see a map of points at which people took pictures, but what’s lacking is search; a larger variety of data besides images and business need to be geo-encoded.

In 2008, we’ll see the wide-spread awareness and adoption of geographic data. Privacy concerns will be confronted and addressed — the resolution won’t be a technical one, but a social one. People will encode more data — blog posts, articles, and documents — enabling others to search not by keyword, but by location, to find general information.

I want to take an application like Google Earth, and zoom in on a place I’m considering visiting. Then, I want to have geo-encoded data like images plotted on that map; articles written about shops, restaurants, and entertainment; weather data for that region; and information on local airports and train stations so I can make arrangements to get there. I want to zoom in to find interesting places and connect the dots between where I am now and how to get to the place I’m viewing. This will happen in 2008.

Tell me More About Your Magic

Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of technology, of which the third is the most famous. It states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

All of these technologies may seem like magic today, but in 2008 they’ll be better explained, and widely used in daily life. What is currently magic will become the technology of everyday tasks.

These are just 9 possible predictions for 2008. What the next 12 months will look like are any one’s guess. Some of these might come to fruition, some might not; other ideas I could never dream of will certainly appear. The only thing we can predict is unpredictability — no matter what, 2008 will be an exciting time to be working in web development!

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