Is the web dead at 20? A number of sensational comments suggest it’s true, and some of Cisco’s traffic trend data seems to show the same thing. There are also suggestions that even if the web is alive, it may increasingly be just a way of getting onto a social website or receiving Tweets. Finally, there’s the view that Google may own search, but that search is really just a web-exploiting activity that’s doomed because the web is doomed. We think it’s more complicated than that.
Traffic on the Internet is increasing rapidly, but much of that increase comes from video delivery, social network activity, etc. To say this isn’t the web is a bit misleading given that everything is delivered from a web page to a browser. But it is true that consumption of normal textual/image web sites is virtually static in an age where other traffic types are growing. A major driver in this trend is the increased use of smartphones, which because of the way they’re used and the limits of their form factors tend to encourage an arm’s-length application interface to websites rather than a browser interface. It’s fair to say that people may be focusing their attention on specific things they want, browsing less, and searching less.
The social network shift is in our view less important to transforming behavior and business online than the application shift. That said, though, you could characterize both applications and social communications as exercises in the underlying connectivity model of the Internet rather than of the hypertext model of the web. The two could create a tendency to view the Internet as a connection network rather than as an information service. VoIP does that already.
For Google, the challenge is that the Internet is a zero-sum game in two ways. First, there is a limited budget of eyeball-minutes for people to expend online, and anything that takes online time without generating searches limits Google’s ad upside. Second, online ad budgets are also typically fixed for a given period, and so the advent of a new thing to spend ad dollars on (social networks) diverts attention from search advertising.
The biggest impact may be on how regulators and governments view the Internet. There’s been some willingness to accept the notion of a guarantee of Internet availability based on the notion that it advances the state of public education and awareness, better informs people on issues, etc. Those benefits are hard to reconcile with Tweets and Facebook. The “connection network” mission is also clearly a telecommunications service and not an information service, and at least for the FCC, this could be a deciding factor in setting regulatory policy.