The Crisis Facing the Web Platform

Peter Gasston
Jun 7, 2016 · 3 min read

Alex Russell wrote a series of tweets this evening, articulating something that I’ve been considering a lot recently: the long-term health and prosperity of the web. It’s a core tenet of a talk I developed, Surveying The Landscape; I’ve presented it three times already, and have just adapted it into an article with the same title. As a preface to my article, I’m posting here Alex’s full text, plus a short addition by myself. NB: This is a reaction piece, and will be updated after more consideration.

The following section is written by Alex Russell, lightly edited by me.

OK, time for some Web Platform real talk.

First, ICYMI, the future is mobile.

Second, the correct way to understand the success (or failure) of your platform is by user-time spent in apps built on it (and don’t try to tell me that’s the wrong metric; if you’ve got one that puts you in a better light, you’re only deluding yourself).

By the time-spent metric, the Web Platfom is pretty fucked today. There’s some good news, and that news is that the web’s distribution model is killer. But that fact does not change the reality that the web is in crisis. Actual, real, serious crisis.

I’ve avoided being direct about this in talks and presentations so as not to scare folks, but perhaps that’s the wrong tack. It is appropriate to be freaked out about this.

The implications of this are that precious objections to what/how someone builds on the web don’t matter; it’s that they build for the web. This is, of course, a too-coarse-to-capture-any-let-alone-every situation first-pass analysis; but at a first pass, it’ll do.

Now, there is a time and a place for us to have conversations about what’s best and what’s only good. But in 2016, if you think you’re playing for Team Web, and you haven’t tried to internalize the “losing mobile” thing, you’re fucking up. Do with all of this what you will. But please, put a little perspective on web debates, if only this year.

This is the future that we could win if we don’t change the narrative.

Ball’s in your court.

This is me again.

Obviously there’s some nuance missing from this — that’s the nature of Twitter, after all — and the debate is already simmering (I urge you to read through Alex’s timeline in more detail). But I must agree with the broader point. If you work on the web, you shouldn’t dismiss what Alex says: there is a genuine risk to the long-term prosperity of the web.

For example, this is what Cennydd Bowles, product designer and former design manager at Twitter, added:

I don’t take the web seriously as an app platform any more. Publishing, sure! Products, no. My Twitter experience was largely swimming against the tide of terrible web UX. Sole advantage was distribution.

Having taken on a more broad technology role in my career, it’s become clear to me that the web could very easily become marginalised by other platforms. I’m not privy to any special knowledge or foresight; all I’m doing is studying trends. And it’s quite scary.

The reason that the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) effort exists is because drastic action is required to make the web fast, light, and competitive. Viewed in that light, AMP is crisis response.

It would be better for everyone if the web was improved more fundamentally by following Progressive Web Apps principles, but that course takes longer to correct. In the meantime, any effort to address the mobile gap must be welcomed, even if it falls short of perfection. We should be careful, however, not to sacrifice the best parts of the web in the process.

The themes in this article are expanded further in my talk adaptation, Surveying The Landscape, along with many supporting references.

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