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Getting the Web
What are WebApplications?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Whenever a new medium comes out it takes a while for people to "get it" -- most people just see the new medium as a variant of whatever they already had (and understood). This gives a new technology many old biases based on which groups adopt it first, and it takes a while to grow out of it.

When the radio came out, people thought it was nothing but a newspaper over the airwaves -- so they used it as such. All stories were dry, with someone reading newpaper articles to you over the air. A few thought of it as audio books -- and would add readings of books and stories. Slowly the radio stations figured out that the new medium could convey more drama than a book if they just created an audio play. Then they figured out live concerts. They learned that current events could be broadcast as they happened and not just reading yesterdays news. Then they figured out that they could record events or music and play them back later -- which allowed for better editing, more effects, and so on. The medium expanded -- but it took a while for humanity to adapt and to get it.

When Television came out it was the same story -- at first, it was just the older mediums done over. Viewers of early TV really got radio drama and stories, current events (news) without pictures (or with stills), and little else. Then the producers learned that they could do plays on the TV screen (called screenplays). Later they learned that everything didn't have to be live for screenplays and that taping things in advance meant that they didn't have to worry about timely set-changes (which was a restriction of real plays), thus screenplays could keep the intensity higher and they could take place in many locations, with more dramatic sets, and could even happen at the actual locations (instead of sets made to look like the real locations). News could have live pictures as well as like voice so people could see what was happening. Since Film and radio were first, it helped speed along the adaptation of the new medium -- but even then it just sort of became "new film" or "radio with pictures" until people started to "get it" and exploit the new medium in new ways.


Well, now we've been hit with our newest medium -- the Web, or more accurately, the network. And guess what? People haven't fully figured out how to exploit the new medium (the network) yet. They are good at using the Internet as an extension of the old mediums -- and each group sees the Internet as an extension of their medium. There is a little adaptation -- but always with the bias each group (individual) brings. The magazines and book people have almost figured out that the Net is immediate publishing of books and magazines and that you can put something up and people can read it immediately with no real distribution costs, but they haven't fully figured out what that means. Radio and TV people see the Internet as a broadcast medium for video and audio (unidirectional), but it is a poor one since the issues of bandwidth aren't completely resolved. Marketing people see it as a place to put up their flyers and brochures (on websites). And of course manufacturers and stores see the net as a place to sell things. They are all "getting it", in part, and missing what it is going to become.

The Internet is a network -- as a network it can replace all the mediums we had before. But it is much more than any one of those mediums. The Internet is already an improvement on all those things (or it will be) -- but it will be much more when we figure out how to combine the functionality of the whole and exploit the new medium in full. So in the future, the net is a better publishing medium for text because it is instant, and no costs, and you can link to relevant information and index and search much better. But what will really make it better is that you can not only read the text, but also listen to, or see, a speech that the text is about. You can buy related books on line, you can type, email or talk to the people that wrote the text or speech, or the people who are analyzing it. As the net grows it will eventually watch you and learn what your needs are and offer suggestions (agents). And this last part -- the ability of the net (or individual parts of the net) to grow and learn is what is going to really shake things up. It is this new cross-medium capability, convergence of information, and bidirectional capability (to listen and learn as well as broadcast) that will exploit the medium and change humanity and the way we communicate.

Stretching the boundaries

Let me explain the how I think the Internet can be a more powerful medium using a business plan that I had a few years ago. I was thinking of building a '.com' Internet startup based on music, radio or CD collections -- let's call this NuRadio. The idea would be that a user could enter their information on what kind of music they like and have a personal radio station for them. But the important point is that it wasn't JUST radio (like many are doing) -- what makes it really use the new medium is that it could be much much more than radio -- and use the net for what it is good for.

One of the key concepts of this solution was that NuRadio could be a custom radio that not only broadcases but listens (and learns from each user). Users could pick the genre, the style and everything about the format -- and they could mix the format the ways the user like (classical and rap, new age and 60s, Jazz and pop). This customization is stuff you can't find on real radio -- which has to tailor itself to the largest groups, and not to individuals. NuRadio could take it much further as well -- imagine there was a little controller (palette on screen) that could get feedback from the user. The user could not want to listen to that song and say "skip" instead of changing radio stations. Over time, the system could learn what songs the user skips. There could be a little rating button as songs were playing and get the user feedback on what they liked or didn't like, and alter the format accordingly -- or look for similar music. The user could even have a "Never again!" button -- so they could experiment by listening to new songs, but if they didn't like a song they could permanently block it (or the whole artist) from their play list. They could have a "more like this" button -- which would get them more from that artist or in that style. They could set the ratio of how much they like to listen to their old favorites versus how many new groups they got to hear (how experimental they are).

And that isn't all -- the Internet is many mediums at once. If the user hears a song they like, they can click on an "Info" button -- then they are browsing a database that has all the information about that band, album or label. If they click on another link they get links to other sites that have info on that band, or groupings of bands that are considered "like" that band. Another link would have an index of Articles on the web (or in magazines) about the band. Another option is the "buy on line" medium -- they are listening to a song, and they can click a button to buy the CD or MP3 of the song, album or other albums by that group. Remember, the more convenient the sale, the more likely you are to get it. If they want books on the band, or paraphernalia (T-shirts, Promo-stuff, etc.) they are all right there. Information on demand -- it is part website, part database, part radio, part book and articles (links) and part specialty store selling just what the users want. You can even add in forums, fan clubs, rare collections of unusual albums, used sales and so on.

By mixing many mediums you create something that is more than the sum of its parts.. This mixing of the mediums is not only good for the users, but it is good for the business (portal) as well. The portal has to become part sales to make money -- but only part. There is also be the advertising revenue (banners and audio advertising), direct sales of the service (to listen without ads, or to make custom versions for business specific ads for Muzak in office buildings or dept. stores), and sales of demographics info since you know a lot about the listeners and their tastes. The portal (NuRadio) doesn't have to do it all themselves -- they can have tie-ins with other specialty businesses to generate some revenue -- but the secret is to get the user what they want around that theme, whatever that might be. And the goal is to make a very small amount on many aspects of the business.

The concepts are the exact same as the GUI (Graphical User Interfaces) -- instead of the user being forced to adapt to Radio (or computer) the radio would try to adapt to them

There are many reasons why I didn't do this portal -- mainly having to do with legalities and the open legal warfare that would result with the record companies. In fact, MP3 got in just such a battle doing something similar, but smaller scale (thus proving my concerns were valid). I find it hugely ironic that the industries that can benefit most to benefit from thinking "big" are the most anachronistic thinkers and the biggest barriers. Of course they do this because they have the largest investment in keeping things the way they are and not taking risks. So most real change has to come from the fringe (as usual).


The point is not about any one solution or idea -- it is about the broader ramifications and what solutions like this will bring. The Internet allows new solutions and convergence that is greater than the sum of the parts. Most of the websites today are still still static, one-way affairs -- they send information to the users. Very slowly people are learning the potential of the internet.

People are adapting to making the information "on-demand" instead of broadcast -- that alone is enough of an improvement to justify the entire existence of the Internet. However, the real future of the Internet is about the bidirectional communication and converging information. The Internet isn't about making a better radio, or a better TV station, or a better book -- it is about combining all the information in new ways and bringing all that information together. It is about being able to get feedback on your users -- individually (and tailoring a solution for each of them), as well as collectively with site statistics and group information (in order to custom to site to what the consumers want).

The way this is done is by evolving from unidirectional, static websites, to bidirectional WebApplications (that can listen to users, adapt, and grow). I became so serious about my belief in these concepts that I shifted my own career to focus on Web Applications, because I see what a huge future there is going to be in doing this. After investigating the solutions which empower these capabilities I jumped on the best solution for doing this -- which is WebObjects by Apple.

Society adapts slowly, and the technology and infrastructure take more time than people realize -- even with the web. If you think the Internet hype is big now just wait a few more years until the industry matures a little. When we start seeing real Web Solutions, that can do things the other mediums can not, people are going to start flooding in. The Web is not a fad, and we haven't even seen the beginning of the beginning. The beginning of the web start when people start "getting it" and really exploiting the new medium for what it is good for -- learning and adapting to users, and the real convergence of information.

Created: 02/13/00
Updated: 11/09/02

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