[ Reprinted from Wired 08/2010. We'll take this down if Wired objects.
The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet
* By Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff
* August 17, 2010 |
* 9:00 am |
* Wired September 2010
Sources: Cisco estimates based on CAIDA publications, Andrew Odlyzko
Two decades after its birth, the World Wide Web is in decline, as
simpler, sleeker services -- think apps -- are less about the
searching and more about the getting. Chris Anderson explains how this
new paradigm reflects the inevitable course of capitalism. And Michael
Wolff explains why the new breed of media titan is forsaking the Web
for more promising (and profitable) pastures.
[ This article is split in two interleaved halves. Look for the changing
Blame. -- Ed. ]
Who's to Blame:
As much as we love the open, unfettered Web, we're abandoning it for
simpler, sleeker services that just work.
by Chris Anderson
You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad -- that's one
app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York
Times -- three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a
podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through
RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps.
At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to
Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix's
You've spent the day on the Internet -- but not on the Web. And you
are not alone.
This is not a trivial distinction. Over the past few years, one of the
most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the
wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for
transport but not the browser for display. It's driven primarily by
the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it's a world
Google can't crawl, one where HTML doesn't rule. And it's the world
that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they're
rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms
often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen
comes to them, they don't have to go to the screen). The fact that
it's easier for companies to make money on these platforms only
cements the trend. Producers and consumers agree: The Web is not the
culmination of the digital revolution.--A decade ago, the ascent of
the Web browser as the center of the computing world appeared
inevitable. It seemed just a matter of time before the Web replaced PC
application software and reduced operating systems to a "poorly
debugged set of device drivers," as Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen
famously said. First Java, then Flash, then Ajax, then HTML5 --
increasingly interactive online code -- promised to put all apps in
the cloud and replace the desktop with the webtop. Open, free, and out
But there has always been an alternative path, one that saw the Web as
a worthy tool but not the whole toolkit. In 1997, Wired published a
now-infamous "Push!" cover story, which suggested that it was time
to "kiss your browser goodbye." The argument then was that "push"
technologies such as PointCast and Microsoft's Active Desktop would
create a "radical future of media beyond the Web."
"Sure, we'll always have Web pages. We still have postcards and
telegrams, don't we? But the center of interactive media --
increasingly, the center of gravity of all media -- is moving to a
post-HTML environment," we promised nearly a decade and half ago. The
examples of the time were a bit silly -- a "3-D furry-muckers VR
space" and "headlines sent to a pager" -- but the point was altogether
prescient: a glimpse of the machine-to-machine future that would be
less about browsing and more about getting.
Who's to Blame:
Chaos isn't a business model. A new breed of media moguls is bringing
order -- and profits -- to the digital world.
by Michael Wolff
An amusing development in the past year or so -- if you regard
post-Soviet finance as amusing -- is that Russian investor Yuri
Milner has, bit by bit, amassed one of the most valuable stakes on the
Internet: He's got 10 percent of Facebook. He's done this by
undercutting traditional American VCs -- the Kleiners and the
Sequoias who would, in days past, insist on a special status in
return for their early investment. Milner not only offers better terms
than VC firms, he sees the world differently. The traditional VC has a
portfolio of Web sites, expecting a few of them to be successes -- a
good metaphor for the Web itself, broad not deep, dependent on the
connections between sites rather than any one, autonomous property. In
an entirely different strategic model, the Russian is concentrating
his bet on a unique power bloc. Not only is Facebook more than just
another Web site, Milner says, but with 500 million users it's "the
largest Web site there has ever been, so large that it is not a Web
site at all."
According to Compete, a Web analytics company, the top 10 Web
sites accounted for 31 percent of US pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in
2006, and about 75 percent in 2010. "Big sucks the traffic out of
small," Milner says. "In theory you can have a few very successful
individuals controlling hundreds of millions of people. You can become
big fast, and that favors the domination of strong people."
Milner sounds more like a traditional media mogul than a Web
entrepreneur. But that's exactly the point. If we're moving away from
the open Web, it's at least in part because of the rising dominance of
businesspeople more inclined to think in the all-or-nothing terms of
traditional media than in the come-one-come-all collectivist
utopianism of the Web. This is not just natural maturation but in many
ways the result of a competing idea -- one that rejects the Web's
ethic, technology, and business models. The control the Web took from
the vertically integrated, top-down media world can, with a little
rethinking of the nature and the use of the Internet, be taken back.
This development -- a familiar historical march, both feudal and
corporate, in which the less powerful are sapped of their reason for
being by the better resourced, organized, and efficient -- is perhaps
the rudest shock possible to the leveled, porous, low-barrier-to-entry
ethos of the Internet Age. After all, this is a battle that seemed
fought and won -- not just toppling newspapers and music labels but
also AOL and Prodigy and anyone who built a business on the idea that
a curated experience would beat out the flexibility and freedom of the
Illustration: Dirk Fowler
As it happened, PointCast, a glorified screensaver that could
inadvertently bring your corporate network to its knees, quickly
imploded, taking push with it. But just as Web 2.0 is simply Web 1.0
that works, the idea has come around again. Those push concepts have
now reappeared as APIs, apps, and the smartphone. And this time we
have Apple and the iPhone/iPad juggernaut leading the way, with tens
of millions of consumers already voting with their wallets for an
app-led experience. This post-Web future now looks a lot more
convincing. Indeed, it's already here.
The Web is, after all, just one of many applications that exist on the
Internet, which uses the IP and TCP protocols to move packets around.
This architecture -- not the specific applications built on top of it
-- is the revolution. Today the content you see in your browser --
largely HTML data delivered via the http protocol on port 80 --
accounts for less than a quarter of the traffic on the Internet ...
and it's shrinking. The applications that account for more of the
Internet's traffic include peer-to-peer file transfers, email, company
VPNs, the machine-to-machine communications of APIs, Skype calls,
World of Warcraft and other online games, Xbox Live, iTunes,
voice-over-IP phones, iChat, and Netflix movie streaming. Many of the
newer Net applications are closed, often proprietary, networks.
And the shift is only accelerating. Within five years, Morgan Stanley
projects, the number of users accessing the Net from mobile devices
will surpass the number who access it from PCs. Because the screens
are smaller, such mobile traffic tends to be driven by specialty
software, mostly apps, designed for a single purpose. For the sake of
the optimized experience on mobile devices, users forgo the
general-purpose browser. They use the Net, but not the Web. Fast beats
This was all inevitable. It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of
industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over
control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers
bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It
happens every time.
Take railroads. Uniform and open gauge standards helped the industry
boom and created an explosion of competitors -- in 1920, there were
186 major railroads in the US. But eventually the strongest of them
rolled up the others, and today there are just seven -- a regulated
oligopoly. Or telephones. The invention of the switchboard was another
open standard that allowed networks to interconnect. After telephone
patents held by AT&T's parent company expired in 1894, more than 6,000
independent phone companies sprouted up. But by 1939, AT&T controlled
nearly all of the US's long-distance lines and some four-fifths of its
telephones. Or electricity. In the early 1900s, after the
standardization to alternating current distribution, hundreds of small
electric utilities were consolidated into huge holding companies. By
the late 1920s, the 16 largest of those commanded more than 75 percent
of the electricity generated in the US.
Indeed, there has hardly ever been a fortune created without a
monopoly of some sort, or at least an oligopoly. This is the natural
path of industrialization: invention, propagation, adoption, control.
Now it's the Web's turn to face the pressure for profits and the
walled gardens that bring them. Openness is a wonderful thing in the
nonmonetary economy of peer production. But eventually our tolerance
for the delirious chaos of infinite competition finds its limits. Much
as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work,
reliably and seamlessly. And if we have to pay for what we love, well,
that increasingly seems OK. Have you looked at your cell phone or
cable bill lately?
As Jonathan L. Zittrain puts it in The Future of the Internet -- And
How to Stop It, "It is a mistake to think of the Web browser as the
apex of the PC's evolution." Today the Internet hosts countless closed
gardens; in a sense, the Web is an exception, not the rule.
The truth is that the Web has always had two faces. On the one hand,
the Internet has meant the breakdown of incumbent businesses and
traditional power structures. On the other, it's been a constant power
struggle, with many companies banking their strategy on controlling
all or large chunks of the TCP/IP-fueled universe. Netscape tried to
own the homepage; Amazon.com tried to dominate retail; Yahoo, the
navigation of the Web.
Google was the endpoint of this process: It may represent open systems
and leveled architecture, but with superb irony and strategic
brilliance it came to almost completely control that openness. It's
difficult to imagine another industry so thoroughly subservient to one
player. In the Google model, there is one distributor of movies, which
also owns all the theaters. Google, by managing both traffic and sales
(advertising), created a condition in which it was impossible for
anyone else doing business in the traditional Web to be bigger than or
even competitive with Google. It was the imperial master over the
world's most distributed systems. A kind of Rome.
In an analysis that sees the Web, in the description of Interactive
Advertising Bureau president Randall Rothenberg, as driven by "a bunch
of megalomaniacs who want to own the entirety of the world," it is
perhaps inevitable that some of those megalomaniacs began to see
replicating Google's achievement as their fundamental business
challenge. And because Google so dominated the Web, that meant
building an alternative to the Web.
Enter Facebook. The site began as a free but closed system. It
required not just registration but an acceptable email address (from a
university, or later, from any school). Google was forbidden to search
through its servers. By the time it opened to the general public in
2006, its clublike, ritualistic, highly regulated foundation was
already in place. Its very attraction was that it was a closed system.
Indeed, Facebook's organization of information and relationships
became, in a remarkably short period of time, a redoubt from the Web
-- a simpler, more habit-forming place. The company invited developers
to create games and applications specifically for use on Facebook,
turning the site into a full-fledged platform. And then, at some
critical-mass point, not just in terms of registration numbers but of
sheer time spent, of habituation and loyalty, Facebook became a
parallel world to the Web, an experience that was vastly different and
arguably more fulfilling and compelling and that consumed the time
previously spent idly drifting from site to site. Even more to the
point, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg possessed a clear vision
of empire: one in which the developers who built applications on top
of the platform that his company owned and controlled would always be
subservient to the platform itself. It was, all of a sudden, not just
a radical displacement but also an extraordinary concentration of
power. The Web of countless entrepreneurs was being overshadowed by
the single entrepreneur-mogul-visionary model, a ruthless paragon of
everything the Web was not: rigid standards, high design, centralized
Striving megalomaniacs like Zuckerberg weren't the only ones eager to
topple Google's model of the open Web. Content companies, which depend
on advertising to fund the creation and promulgation of their wares,
appeared to be losing faith in their ability to do so online. The Web
was built by engineers, not editors. So nobody paid much attention to
the fact that HTML-constructed Web sites -- the most advanced form of
online media and design -- turned out to be a pretty piss-poor
For quite a while this was masked by the growth of the audience share,
followed by an ever-growing ad-dollar share, until, about two years
ago, things started to slow down. The audience continued to grow at a
ferocious rate -- about 35 percent of all our media time is now spent
on the Web -- but ad dollars weren't keeping pace. Online ads had
risen to some 14 percent of consumer advertising spending but had
begun to level off. (In contrast, TV -- which also accounts for 35
percent of our media time, gets nearly 40 percent of ad dollars.)
Monopolies are actually even more likely in highly networked markets
like the online world. The dark side of network effects is that rich
nodes get richer. Metcalfe's law, which states that the value of a
network increases in proportion to the square of connections, creates
winner-take-all markets, where the gap between the number one and
number two players is typically large and growing.
So what took so long? Why wasn't the Web colonized by monopolists a
decade ago? Because it was in its adolescence then, still innovating
quickly with a fresh and growing population of users always looking
for something new. Network-driven domination was short-lived.
Friendster got huge while social networking was in its infancy, and
fickle consumers were still keen to experiment with the next new
thing. They found another shiny service and moved on, just as they
had abandoned SixDegrees.com before it. In the expanding universe of
the early Web, AOL's walled garden couldn't compete with what was
outside the walls, and so the walls fell.
But the Web is now 18 years old. It has reached adulthood. An entire
generation has grown up in front of a browser. The exploration of a
new world has turned into business as usual. We get the Web. It's part
of our life. And we just want to use the services that make our life
better. Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the
status quo grows.
Blame human nature. As much as we intellectually appreciate openness,
at the end of the day we favor the easiest path. We'll pay for
convenience and reliability, which is why iTunes can sell songs for 99
cents despite the fact that they are out there, somewhere, in some
form, for free. When you are young, you have more time than money, and
LimeWire is worth the hassle. As you get older, you have more money
than time. The iTunes toll is a small price to pay for the simplicity
of just getting what you want. The more Facebook becomes part of your
life, the more locked in you become. Artificial scarcity is the
natural goal of the profit-seeking.
What's more, there was the additionally sobering and confounding fact
that an online consumer continued to be worth significantly less than
an offline one. For a while, this was seen as inevitable right-sizing:
Because everything online could be tracked, advertisers no longer had
to pay to reach readers who never saw their ads. You paid for what you
Unfortunately, what you got wasn't much. Consumers weren't motivated
by display ads, as evidenced by the share of the online audience that
bothered to click on them. (According to a 2009 comScore study, only
16 percent of users ever click on an ad, and 8 percent of users
accounted for 85 percent of all clicks.) The Web might generate some
clicks here and there, but you had to aggregate millions and millions
of them to make any money (which is what Google, and basically nobody
else, was able to do). And the Web almost perversely discouraged the
kind of systematized, coordinated, focused attention upon which brands
are built -- the prime, or at least most lucrative, function of media.
What's more, this medium rendered powerless the marketers and agencies
that might have been able to turn this chaotic mess into an effective
selling tool -- the same marketers and professional salespeople who
created the formats (the variety shows, the 30- second spots, the soap
operas) that worked so well in television and radio. Advertising
powerhouse WPP, for instance, with its colossal network of
marketing firms -- the same firms that had shaped traditional media by
matching content with ads that moved the nation -- may still represent
a large share of Google's revenue, but it pales next to the greater
population of individual sellers that use Google's AdWords and AdSense
There is an analogy to the current Web in the first era of the
Internet. In the 1990s, as it became clear that digital networks were
the future, there were two warring camps. One was the traditional
telcos, on whose wires these feral bits of the young Internet were
being sent. The telcos argued that the messy protocols of TCP/IP --
all this unpredictable routing and those lost packets requiring
resending -- were a cry for help. What consumers wanted were
"intelligent" networks that could (for a price) find the right path
and provision the right bandwidth so that transmissions would flow
uninterrupted. Only the owners of the networks could put the
intelligence in place at the right spots, and thus the Internet would
become a value-added service provided by the AT&Ts of the world, much
like ISDN before it. The rallying cry was "quality of service" (QoS).
Only telcos could offer it, and as soon as consumers demanded it, the
telcos would win.
The opposing camp argued for "dumb" networks. Rather than cede control
to the telcos to manage the path that bits took, argued its
proponents, just treat the networks as dumb pipes and let TCP/IP
figure out the routing. So what if you have to resend a few times, or
the latency is all over the place. Just keep building more capacity --
"overprovision bandwidth" -- and it will be Good Enough.
On the underlying Internet itself, Good Enough has won. We stare at
the spinning buffering disks on our YouTube videos rather than accept
the Faustian bargain of some Comcast/Google QoS bandwidth deal that we
would invariably end up paying more for. Aside from some corporate
networks, dumb pipes are what the world wants from telcos. The
innovation advantages of an open marketplace outweigh the limited
performance advantages of a closed system.
But the Web is a different matter. The marketplace has spoken: When it
comes to the applications that run on top of the Net, people are
starting to choose quality of service. We want TweetDeck to
organize our Twitter feeds because it's more convenient than the
Twitter Web page. The Google Maps mobile app on our phone works better
in the car than the Google Maps Web site on our laptop. And we'd
rather lean back to read books with our Kindle or iPad app than lean
forward to peer at our desktop browser.
At the application layer, the open Internet has always been a fiction.
It was only because we confused the Web with the Net that we didn't
see it. The rise of machine-to-machine communications -- iPhone apps
talking to Twitter APIs -- is all about control. Every API comes with
terms of service, and Twitter, Amazon.com, Google, or any other
company can control the use as they will. We are choosing a new form
of QoS: custom applications that just work, thanks to cached content
and local code. Every time you pick an iPhone app instead of a Web
site, you are voting with your finger: A better experience is worth
paying for, either in cash or in implicit acceptance of a non-Web
One result of the relative lack of influence of professional
salespeople and hucksters -- the democratization of marketing, if you
will -- is that advertising on the Web has not developed in the subtle
and crafty and controlling ways it did in other mediums. The
ineffectual banner ad, created (indeed by the founders of this
magazine) in 1994 -- and never much liked by anyone in the marketing
world -- still remains the foundation of display advertising on the
And then there's the audience.
At some never-quite-admitted level, the Web audience, however
measurable, is nevertheless a fraud. Nearly 60 percent of people find
Web sites from search engines, much of which may be driven by SEO, or
"search engine optimization" -- a new-economy acronym that refers to
gaming Google's algorithm to land top results for hot search terms. In
other words, many of these people have been essentially corralled into
clicking a random link and may have no idea why they are visiting a
particular site -- or, indeed, what site they are visiting. They are
the exact opposite of a loyal audience, the kind that you might
expect, over time, to inculcate with your message.
Web audiences have grown ever larger even as the quality of those
audiences has shriveled, leading advertisers to pay less and less to
reach them. That, in turn, has meant the rise of junk-shop content
providers -- like Demand Media -- which have determined that the
only way to make money online is to spend even less on content than
advertisers are willing to pay to advertise against it. This further
cheapens online content, makes visitors even less valuable, and
continues to diminish the credibility of the medium.
Even in the face of this downward spiral, the despairing have hoped.
But then came the recession, and the panic button got pushed. Finally,
after years of experimentation, content companies came to a disturbing
conclusion: The Web did not work. It would never bring in the bucks.
And so they began looking for a new model, one that leveraged the
power of the Internet without the value-destroying side effects of the
Web. And they found Steve Jobs, who -- rumor had it -- was working on
a new tablet device.
Now, on the technology side, what the Web has lacked in its
determination to turn itself into a full-fledged media format is
anybody who knew anything about media. Likewise, on the media side,
there wasn't anybody who knew anything about technology. This has been
a fundamental and aching disconnect: There was no sublime integration
of content and systems, of experience and functionality -- no clever,
subtle, Machiavellian overarching design able to create that
codependent relationship between audience, producer, and marketer.
In the media world, this has taken the form of a shift from
ad-supported free content to freemium -- free samples as marketing
for paid services -- with an emphasis on the "premium" part. On the
Web, average CPMs (the price of ads per thousand impressions) in key
content categories such as news are falling, not rising, because
user-generated pages are flooding Facebook and other sites. The
assumption had been that once the market matured, big companies would
be able to reverse the hollowing-out trend of analog dollars turning
into digital pennies. Sadly that hasn't been the case for most on the
Web, and by the looks of it there's no light at the end of that
tunnel. Thus the shift to the app model on rich media platforms like
the iPad, where limited free content drives subscription revenue
(check out Wired's cool new iPad app!).
The Web won't take the sequestering of its commercial space easily.
The defenders of the unfettered Web have their hopes set on HTML5 --
the latest version of Web-building code that offers applike
flexibility -- as an open way to satisfy the desire for quality of
service. If a standard Web browser can act like an app, offering the
sort of clean interface and seamless interactivity that iPad users
want, perhaps users will resist the trend to the paid, closed, and
proprietary. But the business forces lining up behind closed platforms
are big and getting bigger. This is seen by many as a battle for the
soul of the digital frontier.
Zittrain argues that the demise of the all-encompassing, wide-open Web
is a dangerous thing, a loss of open standards and services that are
"generative" -- that allow people to find new uses for them. "The
prospect of tethered appliances and software as service," he warns,
"permits major regulatory intrusions to be implemented as minor
technical adjustments to code or requests to service providers."
But what is actually emerging is not quite the bleak future of the
Internet that Zittrain envisioned. It is only the future of the
commercial content side of the digital economy. Ecommerce continues to
thrive on the Web, and no company is going to shut its Web site as an
information resource. More important, the great virtue of today's Web
is that so much of it is noncommercial. The wide-open Web of peer
production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to
create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary
incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like. But the
notion of the Web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is
now in doubt.
The Internet is the real revolution, as important as electricity; what
we do with it is still evolving. As it moved from your desktop to your
pocket, the nature of the Net changed. The delirious chaos of the open
Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping
their way in a new world. Now they're doing what industrialists do
best -- finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we're loving it.
Editor in chief Chris Anderson (email@example.com) wrote about
the new industrial revolution in issue 18.02.
Jobs perfectly fills that void. Other technologists have steered clear
of actual media businesses, seeing themselves as renters of systems
and third-party facilitators, often deeply wary of any involvement
with content. (See, for instance, Google CEO Eric Schmidt's insistence
that his company is not in the content business.) Jobs, on the
other hand, built two of the most successful media businesses of the
past generation: iTunes, a content distributor, and Pixar, a movie
studio. Then, in 2006, with the sale of Pixar to Disney, Jobs becomes
the biggest individual shareholder in one of the world's biggest
traditional media conglomerates -- indeed much of Jobs' personal
wealth lies in his traditional media holdings.
In fact, Jobs had, through iTunes, aligned himself with traditional
media in a way that Google has always resisted. In Google's open and
distributed model, almost anybody can advertise on nearly any site and
Google gets a cut -- its interests are with the mob. Apple, on the
other hand, gets a cut any time anybody buys a movie or song -- its
interests are aligned with the traditional content providers. (This
is, of course, a complicated alignment, because in each deal, Apple
has quickly come to dominate the relationship.)
So it's not shocking that Jobs' iPad-enabled vision of media's future
looks more like media's past. In this scenario, Jobs is a mogul
straight out of the studio system. While Google may have controlled
traffic and sales, Apple controls the content itself. Indeed, it
retains absolute approval rights over all third-party applications.
Apple controls the look and feel and experience. And, what's more, it
controls both the content-delivery system (iTunes) and the devices
(iPods, iPhones, and iPads) through which that content is consumed.
Since the dawn of the commercial Web, technology has eclipsed content.
The new business model is to try to let the content -- the product, as
it were -- eclipse the technology. Jobs and Zuckerberg are trying to
do this like old-media moguls, fine-tuning all aspects of their
product, providing a more designed, directed, and polished experience.
The rising breed of exciting Internet services -- like Spotify,
the hotly anticipated streaming music service; and Netflix, which lets
users stream movies directly to their computer screens, Blu-ray
players, or Xbox 360s -- also pull us back from the Web. We are
returning to a world that already exists -- one in which we chase the
transformative effects of music and film instead of our brief
(relatively speaking) flirtation with the transformative effects of
After a long trip, we may be coming home.
Michael Wolff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a new contributing editor
for Wired. He is also a columnist for Vanity Fair and the founder of
Newser, a news-aggregation site.