Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Where is the internet I grew up with?

Following a short post on g+, and a short rant on Facebook, I decided to fill out the idea a bit more.

Where is the internet we grew up with?

For those of us in our 30s, the internet was fresh and shiny in the late nineties (for some, earlier). Altavista was a search engine of choice, eBay and Amazon were in their infancy. Hotmail was just getting serious and Facebook had probably not really even been thought of. Like many others, I had a geocities page, and life seemed good. It was the new digital frontier. Rough and ready, available to be shaped by anyone who could come along and take ahold of the new emerging technologies.

Before long, eBay and Amazon become the power-houses they are today. Many other internet ideas came and went, most of them because they just weren't all that compelling, some because of bad business management.

Here we stand, looking into 2012. What is the internet today? Who's hot, and who's not?

Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tubmlr, today's engines of "Social Media". eBay and Amazon, what feel like two of the last vanguard of the old ways. Amazon always had a great business case: sell stuff cheap through economies of scale, great shipping and a superior customer experience. People can buy anything they want in a few clicks (1-click maybe), and have it at their door in hours. Gone are the days of 28 days for shipping. Instant gratification for just about any kind of thing you can want (more or less). eBay, once a giant auction site is pretty far down the slope of decline. They are now charging such high fees, and their site has been encumbered with so much commercial content that regular Joe auctions are buried amongst the dross. Wierdly, they feel like they are trying to be Amazon, except that Amazon is already Amazon, and does a darn good job of it. In my opinion, unless eBay wises up fast, they are going to end up holding a bag of stuff with nowhere left to go. People using eBay are complaining more and more, and shifting ways of selling things to other venues like Craig's list. At this point unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much else in public view that presents as an alternative to eBay. It is hard to create a vacuum in such a large market, but eBay is pulling the air out of what used to be their core business model. If that vacuum gets to a critical level, a whole slew of new blood will enter the market, and eBay's dominance will shatter under the pressure their vacuum has created leaving them with what exactly? A not-quite-as-good-as-amazon for sale site?

Flickr seems to be doing okay, but it's photo presence have been significantly eroded by Facebook itself and other sites like Picassa and for serious photographers, pay sites like SmugMug who do a much much better job than Flickr with content management, presentation and semi-pro features.

For many, Facebook has become the internet. Twitter is an add on, and Tubmlr a fascination.

I don't know how things are at Twitter financially, I'm not up on that so much, but I hope things are holding up for them. It's a neat medium, but I'm not sure many people understand why. I think it might be that 140 character limit. It's a nice short tweet. Not intrusive, something you can glance at without being completely distracted from whatever else you are doing. It's the essence of tl;dr. Perfection for a world with ADD. I hope they don't cook what I believe to be their golden goose.

Facebook is in a precarious position. Sitting atop the chaos of the modern age. The hate for Facebook is pretty big, and whilst Google plus impressed some people, there hasn't been the mass exodus that many had hoped for, or predicted. Google screwed up the name situation. I feel they had good reasons, but ultimately, it shot them in the foot. I know that many of the technorati, the people who could make or break it, are the same people who are idealists, and who care about those kind of details. These are the people who still remember the way Facebook has betrayed them year over year. The name situation made them feel that Google was incompetent and didn't "get it". With them deserting in droves, Google Plus may never be more than a sideshow.

I have to say that so far, I haven't really embraced Tumblr. My daughter has a Tumblr, and so do a few other people I know. I forget if I have created one or not.

What does the next decade of the internet look like? What kinds of things will shape it? Some say the API revolution is a big deal. I'm not so sure. APIs require skill to use, and the number of students taking computer science courses at universities has been dropping off. The software industry was one place the 99% were promised a bright future, and honestly, it's still one place they might be able to get it. The API trend I worry is something being driven by the big players. The corporately dominated players. Those that can afford to do API things without compromising their core business model.

What is going on to combat this movement towards utter corporate dominance of the internet of the next decade? I think there is still room for a few garage-built systems to make a hit. People aren't taking a leaf out of Apple's book. Make new technologies, create new revenue streams, future-proof your company by always living in the future. Until they do, the bright and the young can always be a step ahead. The question is if their one-step ahead is really one-step ahead, or one step sideways.

There are some innovations in the software space that are helping with this, things like Ruby on Rails and it's software cousins of a similar ilk. These systems are making it possible for the garage bands to make their dreams happen quicker and easier. I'm concerned that some of this 'innovation' is more like a step sideways than a step forward. People are exchanging tried and tested methodologies for bleeding edge systems relying on "the cloud" to build their ideas into reality. This wouldn't be so bad, but the big promise of the cloud, on demand scalability, is an empty promise for DIY programmers. To achieve real scalability takes knowledge and experience, especially within that environment. For Joe average, this is not present.

The young and the bright can be a step ahead, or a step sideways, but with current technology, hitting a glass ceiling happens too fast. With so many internet users, it takes only one tsunami to hit the shores of your fledgling system to bring it down, where too often it will stay down with no path to recovery. What used to be a quick incremental increase in traffic is today a massive exponential rush. A site can go "viral" in 24 hours or less, and go from a few thousand users to a million people crushing the system. Without experience, it's pretty hard for Joe average to deal with that. The bar to enter the Cyclone that is today's internet has become very high indeed.

How do we solve this problem? I think for some that is the $64,000 question. How do you scale with such rapidity? Systems like MongoDB are being pushed as potential answers. They work in the cloud (more or less), and offer what seems like a good proposition. Unfortunately, they can't do 80% of what a traditional SQL database can do, and once you start growing, that 80% becomes really important. Things like reporting and data warehousing that can help you understand your website users who are now your customers. Other technologies like Map-Reduce are impressive, but most folks don't understand the real value-proposition for Map-Reduce, and worse, most Joe average programmers aren't fluent in the ways of functional programming. Heck, I know very few CompSci grads who can put together programs in a functional style after a decade in the field working declarative systems in Java and others. Lisp and SML and similar are thought on with a level of slight revulsion, a bad college memory of what seems like an arcane way to do things.

So what now? I don't yet know, and that's half the fun! It's undiscovered territory, and no-one really knows what will happen next.

No comments:

Post a Comment