The crossroads or the wilderness

I wanted to highlight an observation I made in my and Tom’s latest podcast episode.

It feels like we’re at a crossroads. At least, that’s what it feels like to me. Whether you’re there with me or not depends entirely on what you’re interested in. Seven years ago, when the Kindle launched, it looked like final strand of a grand convergence. The web was already a heady mix of interactivity and hypertext. Even web apps back then were little more than hypertext with productive side effects. Which was an idea I loved—still love. The web is writing that provides an active service and it looked powerful enough to take over the world.

Remember, this is a few months before the iPhone native app SDK was released and even after that was released it took a while before it became the obvious juggernaut it became today. The app store in its first couple of years of life was more obviously a gold rush than the Kindle ever was. The web wasn’t only the current ‘big thing’, it was the only real thing going on in interactive media.

The Kindle dropped into that and to some of us, those of us less interested in the functional side of hypertext and more interested in its creative applications, it looked like a promise. It looked like the creative web was, in due course, going to get a business model better aligned with its interests than advertising. It was only going to be a matter of time, iteration, and a dollop of Moore’s law.

It didn’t turn out that way, and it’s easy to see in hindsight how foolish this hope was.

Not only did the Kindle continually, steadily stay roughly a decade behind the real web, Amazon doesn’t seem interested in harmonising its platform with any need other than maintaining a feature parity that roughly matches mid- to low end trade paperbacks.

If that were the only setback to the hope for a more creative web that’d be easy to deal with, but it isn’t. The ‘real’ web is forking (and those who don’t see it are in deep denial). If the legacy web and the legacy formats that compose our various ebook platforms are the road behind us, the road ahead is twisting in two different directions. One path leads us to simpler and more limited document formats—AMPP, Instant Articles, a resurgence for RSS—that are becoming the primary delivery vehicle for ad-supported content distributed via social media. The other path is the web that’s turning into an even more modular app platform of custom elements, universal programming language deployment via web assembly, 3D-accellerated canvas rendering, and properly implemented offline app installation where HTML has devolved into nothing more than an abstract if awkward API for adding accessibility support to apps.

These changes are good, for the most part. A streamlined document format whose capabilities are narrowly defined provides a counterweight to the excesses of ad-supported media without undermining it as a the medium’s core business model. A more open and capable web-based app platform is a counterweight to the more tightly locked down native app platforms. Even the stagnant ebook platforms serve a purpose. Their limited capabilities lower the cost of digital publishing and increase the market’s diversity. All of these changes have clear benefits for a lot of people.

The only problem is that it’s all just a little bit less fun, at least for me. I liked the idea of hypertext-with-side-effects as a baseline platform for modern computing. But that isn’t very likely to happen now—not without some major shift or revolution in the market.

So, I’m standing here at this crossroads and I need to decide which way to go. I don’t need to decide today. I might not need to decide for another couple of years. But if I am to have a long term career, I’ll need to pick one of these to focus on:

  1. The web as media.
  2. The web as an app platform.
  3. Ebooks (i.e. ‘web as media’ on a five to ten year time delay).

The scary thing is that my first instinct is to ignore the roads, ignore the paths others have laid out for me, and just march off into the wilderness—to search the wild.

And I don’t even know what I’d be looking for.