How valuable is the Internet technology for the human society? Well, HTML is not ideal as information storage format, because is mixes content with design, doesn’t provide indexes and metainfo, and so on. HTML is also not good for capturing design, because it looks differently on every other rendering engine. And there are much simpler and straightforward ways for peer-to-peer communication than HTTP. And cookies are not the best way to distribute the application state. And the data model of WWW doesn’t suit any real-world application except Wikipedia (interestingly enough even academia don’t use it, preferring to publish their findings in PDF). The most useful and interesting results of “Internet as a technology” are the concepts (and practical proof), related to organization of a highly distrubuted and secured application state (eg. the RESTful principles and TLS/SSL). But other than this, there is not much value in there.
What makes Internet really valuable (and sometimes priceless) is its reach. Due to the fact that Internet platform reaches billions of people all around the world, the true value of the Internet is created. If makes sense to provide information or services, in the Internet, because they can be successfully monetized due to the huge Internet reach. It is reach that makes UGC from a niche scene phenomenon to the wonders of Wikipedia, Twitter, blogosphere and so on. Various Google services, social networks, music, video and games streaming, all this has been made possible not because of some ingenious technology (and in fact, sometimes despite of shortcomings of the Internet technology), but because the Internet reach has created an appropriate economical environment for priceless content and services. And the cool content and services attract even more Internet users. So to say, the Internet itself is the largest and oldest Internet viral loop.
Just like with any viral loop, maintaining and expanding the reach is critical, and there are a lot of ways to break or seriously disturb it. In the Internet, it is the inter-compatibility of Internet technology what is one of the main factors for reach (another two are speed and quality of ISP services, and presence/absence of Internet censorship).
Now, when I look at it closely, I find out that the Internet reach is very fragmented. Not every Internet user can use every web site. Sometimes, their Internet is too slow, sometimes Big Brother blocks web sites, sometimes web sites geo-block themselves due to licensing issues, whatever. Also, from the software point of view, not every site can be used, perhaps because Flash is required, and the user cannot or do not want to install it, or perhaps, because the web developers block Internet Explorer.
But in reality, the Internet reach might be much more fragmented than this: do we want to consider iOS and Android platforms to be parts of the Internet?
Technologically, they aren’t quite the Internet. Most apps don’t use Internet connection after installation, and on Android, they can even be installed without the Internet. But conceptually, I want to include them in a broader definition of the Greater Internet. It can be especially clearly seen with mobile editions of multichannel mass media. No matter if I consume The Economist from the web site or by using an app, exactly the same business happens (The Economist provides insightful analysis and forms my opinion in exchange of subscription fees and ads). Same goes for Instagram, and same goes for Facebook – no matter what app I’m using, the business is the same, and the viral loop is the same (not just similar, but is in fact identical), because engagement of Facebook users who are using it from Android cross-pollinates users from the web, iOS, Smart-TV and what else channels Facebook has; and all engagement has the common base of being stored somewhere on the Facebook servers.
But also mobile apps that do not have any WWW counterparts are in my opinion part of the Greater Internet. Dictionaries, calculators, games, photo and text editors, and productivity suites, all these mobile apps that are now available for free or for laughably cheap prices, can only exist because their developers plan to use reach of the corresponding mobile platform. What they lose in price, they wanted to make up in circulation. This is exactly the same type of the viral loop the classic Internet had: providing some things cheap or for free, making it up with huge circulation, thereby attracting even more users providing even larger circulation.
So, what I would actually expect (if the world would turn around us the software makers) is that all these parts of the Greater Internet would use the same underlying technology, just to ensure the biggest possible reach with smallest possible investment. I mean, okay, okay, the smartphone user experience is so different from the tablet/PC one that you have to create different apps, but at least, you should be able to use the same toolchain and knowledge doing it, and at least, writing one smartphone app you should be able to run it on any smartphone in the world, no matter which manufacturer.
Alas, this is not the case. Just like there are web sites that I cannot use, because they don’t support Internet Explorer, there are iOS apps I cannot use, because I don’t own any iOS devices. There are the web sites using old-style HTML, web sites using HTML5, and among the latter, there are web sites supporting only the WebKit, and web sites also supporting some other browsers. In the Apple county, there are phone and tablet and desktop apps (and Apple TV apps). If it is Android… Well, everybody has seen this scary huge fragmentation infographic of the Android.
Now sit down if you are staying, or hold your chair if you’re already sitting.
It turns out that Microsoft is currently doing the best job in terms of unification and ensuring the best possible reach of the Greater Internet. Yes, yes, the former evil empire is the saviour of the Internet. Microsoft has already very satisfying situation in their own devices. Basically, if you know XAML and C# and Visual Studio, you can already go ahead and create classic desktop apps, Metro-style apps for their tablets, Windows Phone apps and RIAs. Add some HTML5/CSS3 knowledge and you’ll be able to make web apps (with C# in the server side). All that using the same IDE, same frameworks, and same infrastructure. When speaking about the other platforms, Xamarin is doing great job by covering iOS and Android.
Still, these efforts are not part of the mainstream. And you know, this kind of fragmentation is nothing special or new. This is one of the core issues of capitalism, perhaps even the way how it works. Coke or Pepsi? BMW or AUDI? McDonalds or BurgerKing? Cube bikes or Stevens? Adidas or Nike? So, do we really need all these choices? Some choices are meaningful. For exampe, black iPhone or white iPhone. Cold bubble tea or hot bubble tea. But developing a whole model line of cars, so sophisticated but so similar as BMW and AUDI? Sure the car drivers would promptly correct me saying these cars are as different as hell and heavens; for me their difference is just like Coke versus Pepsi. Do we as a society really want to spend double or triple efforts for developing such similar products and services, only to see how timber, metals, plastic, time and energy are wasted to produce them, and half of them fail to win the market, and will be sold below the price, and then scrapped and produce even more garbage? Do we really want to spend expensive electrical energy on Bing servers, while there are a lot of Google servers doing the same thing?
For me, the answer is clearly no, we don’t want to waste resources, but the problem is that the only known alternative, the communism and the plan economy, has even worse issues, leading to even more “impressive” waste of ressources, not to mention high correllation with genocide, mass humiliation and deaths, or other “fine” features of totalitarism.
Unfortunately for me, there are a lot of Internet developers who don’t share my beliefs. Just like the communists, they declare rightful and reasonable goals (for example unifying the Internet technology), and just like the communists, they intend to use force, humiliation, discomfort or discrimination to achieve their goals.
I’m looking at you, all the web developers who develop their sites for WebKit only. You have abused IE6 users for no good reasons, as most of your web sites could as well be programmed with plain old HTML 3.1 with no limitation in functionality. You plan to put your bloody hands now on the throats of IE7 and IE8 users. You believe doing good service for Internet, cause no IE means less fragmentation. While this is technically true, the road you choose to go on is a very predictable one: first, you join your forces to eliminate IE, when you succeed, you will suddenly discover that Firefox is the source of all evil. Unlike IE there are no huge corporations behind Firefox (anymore), so that it will die rather quickly and unspectacularly. And then you will start the Safari against the Chrome war, the last one. And the winner will stop evolving because it won’t be interesting for the WebKit community any more, and the new generations of web developers will hate “that fucking WebKit community that can’t fix that silly bug since ages”.
Internet, especially Greater Internet, badly needs unification and consolidation. But force, hatred and ideology is not the way how it works.