File Under: Web Basics

The iPad 3 and the Future of the Web

Apple is expected to announce the third version of the iPad tomorrow. It’s easy to mock the excess enthusiasm the tech community has for new Apple gadgets — Wow! Look, it’s a new computer!

At the same time it’s just as easy to see why that enthusiasm exists — Apple can be counted on to push the boundaries of how we use computers and how we use the web.

As developers, pushing the boundaries makes for exciting times. Difficult times too. Times that challenge our current models of what the web is and what the web might become.

Apple has already pushed the web in several new directions by popularizing touch-based devices and in the process redefining our behaviors, habits and expectations.

Taking away the mouse forced developers to rethink many things we previously took for granted — of course I can use a drop down menu that activates when a mouse rolls over it, how could that possibly not work? Well, now you know. That was only one small change and suddenly web developers had to pivot, best practices had to change.

What will all the new changes coming this year mean for the web? No one knows yet, but the web today is feeling less like a thing that lives in your browser and more like something that exists in the space between things. The web of tomorrow will be less visible and more powerful — the thing that pulls everything together and makes it work even when the web isn’t something you access directly on every device.

A while back Brad Frost told developers to “get your content ready to go anywhere because it’s going to go everywhere.” This has been happening for a while now with RSS and APIs that push and pull content to places often far removed from the “webpage” where it was originally published. Expect this to continue and to become even more common as we navigate between different devices, platforms and technologies. Android apps can’t run on iOS. Windows Metro won’t integrate with a Spark tablet. Something has to link the device silos together.

The web has already become a way to link information across otherwise disconnected apps. Take Marco Arment’s Instapaper, for example. Instapaper saves webpages for offline reading and syncs them between iOS devices and Kindles. Is Instapaper a web app? Is it an iOS app? Is it a Kindle service? It’s all of these things.

Even when platform-native apps are the access point, the web remains the key element in the equation. This will likely be the future of the web — less visible, less obvious, less about the browser, but essential for connecting everything together.

That doesn’t mean that the browser will go away. The browser will likely continue to exist for some time as a fallback. We will still need a device and platform agnostic way to access the web as long as devices remain silos. If iOS went away and Amazon stopped making Kindles, you could still read your Instapaper articles on any device with a browser. The opposite isn’t true — take away the web and the Instapaper apps would be isolated, with no way to connect them.

The web is bigger than the browser already and it will continue to expand into new areas. What’s going to happen when the web is on your television? How will the web need to change when the screen is much larger and further away? How will the web need to change if we want to interact with it by voice commands? Very soon Android devices are going to be in your car dashboard. Eventually your car itself will have an API. Your car could talk to, for example, your car dealer, logging in, making an appointment for a repair it’s just become aware of. It might then use another API to push the appointment on to your calendar app, which then might use the Siri voice API to ask what time works best for you, scanning your other appointments and offering suggestions.

Where in that scenario is the web as we think of it today? It’s just a series of APIs talking to each other. There is no web as we know it. And yet the web is still there, invisibly making it all possible. There’s a reason, after all, that we call it a web — it’s what binds everything else together. It no longer matters if what you’re after ends up displayed on a feature phone via Opera Mobile or inside the Instapaper app running on the latest and greatest iPad. The web is already everywhere.

Photo: Benoit/Flickr