Building the Future’s Foundations: Platforms of the Web

Without the Internet, there would be no Google. And without the physical world, there would be no Internet. These overwhelmingly obvious statements are the basis of a very simple principle: that everything is built on top of something else. To build something, whether it’s a school, a website, or a virtual house, there must be a platform for it to be built on.

For most of human history, we’ve only had one platform to build on, the ground we walk on. The past few decades have given us a digital platform, the Internet, on which we’ve built things that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. These platforms are connected at points, even overlapping in some, the effects of which have been dramatic. Just look at the state of the music industry for an example, or the emerging changes in news coverage and journalism.

More so than the development of the web, the rise of other technologies is making clear the possibilities of new platforms. Where there were once two, the physical world and the Internet, there are a number of connected but distinctly different platforms being created today; the mobile web, semantic web, virtual worlds, and social networks are a few examples of these.

I’m going to examine the two ways in which these platforms are growing, horizontally and vertically, and add my thoughts on why the potential of this growth is a revolutionary innovation. The companies that profit the most from these platforms will not be those who only build on top of them, but those who help create them as well.

Location, Location, Location. The Creation of, Locations.

Our understanding of the physical world does, and always will, affect our understanding of non-physical platforms. We speak of owning ‘online properties’, visiting ‘web sites’, working in the ‘communications space’. New platforms, even though their characteristics are often unrelated to the laws of the physical world, still ‘grow’ in a way that can be measured and quantified. From building artificial islands to extending the coast in my own town of Boston, land reclamation has added new space to the platform of our physical world. Adding to the Web is considerably easier, as anyone who’s created a web page or a blog knows.

The mobile web is growing slowly, as more customers purchase internet-enabled phones. More websites offer content formatted or created specifically for mobile phones, but the mobile web isn’t just a smaller-screened version of the Web. The hardware the mobile web is made possible by has advantages as well as limitations. Beyond portability, a knowledge of location is inherent, and applications for the mobile web increasingly revolve around location and and ‘presence’, indicators of your availability/activity/state of mind. The mobile web’s horizontal growth can be measured not by how much content is available for it, but by the number of people willing and able to receive that content. This growing network of mobile devices is not a repository of content, but a new platform of self-aware content transmitters and receivers.

Virtual worlds, or as some are now calling it, the 3D Web, seem at first to be a perfect analog to the platform of the physical world. But the characteristics of this platform are in fact completely different. There is no such thing as scarcity, unless it is self-imposed. Travel is a choice, not a necessity, as virtual entities can teleport from one location to another in most virtual worlds. It’s even possible to be in multiple places at once, though the implementation is difficult and actions are limited by our own biological nature.

Though the actions possible and methods of creation are different, the creation of new space within virtual worlds can be measured the same as creating land in the physical world. Unused land is just as worthless as no land at all though; and so the horizontal growth of virtual worlds will be measured by the amount of active, ‘inhabited’ areas. It is the possibilities of what can be done in those areas that makes the 3D web a platform unto itself.

The semantic web is growing as I post this. It will grow if you post a comment, or if you don’t. The semantic web is information. The opportunity to build on this platform comes from the way you gather information, filter it, combine it, add to it, present it, anything you can do with it. RSS Mashups like Yahoo! Pipes are excellent examples of tools built on the semantic web platform. Microformats, code that designates what kind of information certain pieces of content are(a person, an event, a review), are another example. The traffic statistics of your web site are viewed through a tool built on the semantic web. The more information collected by tools online, the larger the semantic web grows, and the more ways we will be able to use it. Out of all the new platforms I cover in this post, the semantic web’s horizontal growth is the most closely tied to its vertical growth, which I explore further below.

Social networks have existed as long as humanity itself. It has become a platform as we increasingly identify the ties that connect us. Services built on this platform are giving us more easily accessible knowledge of the relationships we have, and the relationships others have. This is a powerful tool in evaluating our connections, making new ones, and better maintaining current ones. While services like Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace currently dominate what we think of as the use of the social networking platform, the reality is that(for the most part) they are merely building the platform itself. Social networks are the only platform in which a new user is also new growth. The horizontal growth of the social networking platform does not make it easier to create vertical growth, but it does make that growth more useful.

It’s Not What You Are, It’s What You Do

New platforms require only one other platform, the physical world in which we exist, to be built. But the options available to, the pleasure provided by, and the usefulness of these platforms is determined by how often and in how many ways they are connected to the physical world and other platforms; that is how the vertical growth of a platform is determined. The Internet would not be as useful or as enjoyable as it is to us today if it were still limited to a few universities scattered across the U.S. As the Web has made more connections to the physical world, like e-commerce and online video broadcasts, it has had a major effect on our everyday lives, from entertainment to economics. There are still more connections to be made, and emerging platforms are connecting to both the Web and the physical world to have major effects of their own.

The mobile web has been connected to they physical world since before it was the mobile web. The usefulness of a portable phone network has been incredibly enhanced by connecting to the Internet, currently only being restrained by prohibitive data transfer fees. More connections to the physical world are happening, as cell phones can now monitor your home security system or your car alarm. Built-in GPS has been helping rescue workers and officers for years. You can take a photo and add it to Flickr, or make a voice-post to LiveJournal. RFID chips provide information about the price of an object, amount on a subway card, or identity of a person to receivers in a certain range.

Now imagine that your mobile device is attuned to a medical device you wear. It can encrypt and send your health info to authorized family members. Imagine that as virtual worlds become more immersive, you can link your cell phone to an in-game cell phone, and answer a call from inside the virtual world. Imagine that your PDA/phone/fax/camera is connected to your social networking profiles, and depending on your status and the status of your network contacts at any given time, automatically determines whether to ring during a meeting because of an emergency, vibrate because you’re receiving a text message during a class, or automatically shunt to voice mail when an unknown number calls you during dinner. Vertical growth not only gives you more ways to receive and broadcast from your mobile device, it helps you determine the context of those communications.

Virtual worlds are incredibly convenient. In Second Life you can fly without wings, in Habbo Hotel you can have a snowball fight in the middle of the summer, and in most worlds you can change clothes with the click of a button. Virtual worlds have their uses as well. Eliminating the physical world barrier of distance, virtual worlds are taking the convenience of instant messaging, combining it with the group experience of chat rooms, and adding onto it rich experiences of context. Virtual worlds are also challenging our concepts of identity and self-image. But the possibilities of virtual worlds can only be increased by making connections outside of those worlds.

Google Earth already is capable of rendering real-world buildings in 3D. People skilled in image manipulation are taking thousands of photos of a location and combining them to create a full 3D view of it. What happens when we take these creations and make them into a virtual representation within a Second Life-like world(and what are the implications of being able to do the same with photos of people, creating stunningly detailed avatars from those photos)? Will we see a future where you can control your internet-enabled house from within a virtual world, while you’re on vacation perhaps? What if while traveling you come across an amazing location, and you were able to use your phone to send a coordinate ‘bookmark’ to a virtual world likely to have a representation of it?

The semantic web contains more information than any human could possibly process in a lifetime. Yet compared to the information it could contain, the amount it does contain is a single breath of air out of the atmosphere of our existence. And that breath is separated, disconnected, with parts of it uncooperatively hoarded away, often even from the people that provide the information. Computer processing and cunningly created algorithms are taking the jumble of puzzle pieces we’re throwing at them and sometimes creating very useful pictures from them. The more sources of information the semantic web has, the larger and more useful these pictures will be.

Think about the possibilities of an internet-enabled car. Now think about the possibilities if every car were internet-enabled. Which auto company could possibly be so stupid as to knowingly put a defective product on the road when anonymous public accident statistics are collected, sorted, and analyzed? How will it change the way our cities are planned when officials can see the routes most often taken by motorists, the businesses at the end of those routes, and how public transportation comparatively meets those needs? Think about your phone’s ability to send a text message to Google Local Search, and receive a list of businesses matching your query. What if it also told you how busy that business was at the moment(restaurant reservations needed?)? What if you were just bored, and your phone could connect to a social networking profile, then a service like Google Maps, and then provide you a list of nearby things you might find interesting?

Social networks offer one of the most powerful forms of context available to us, the context of our relationships with others. Josh Porter, Alex Mather, and especially Sarah Cooper have recently done a great job of discussing and illustrating the organization of our social circles, and how they can be used for recommendations, among other things. The problem with current social networks is that they are too contained, with too few vertical connections to or from the physical world and other platforms. The Facebook platform is slowly changing that, but primarily with connections to the Web, the same platform it’s already most connected to.

Movie and music recommendations are a much-ballyhooed use of this context. Let’s up the ante, and make those recommendations and reviews from your friends available over a mobile device while you’re inside Blockbuster, FYE, or BestBuy. Who will be the first to create a service that plugs in to your social networks and semantic web sources, and provides gift recommendations when you’re shopping for people you know? When will social networks offer you the ability to keep track of your location, where and when you’ve met people, what the outcome of those meetings have been, and then be able to recommend where to best spend your Saturday night to meet someone new, or which business event this Wednesday will offer the most valuable connections?

Emerging Platforms Face Challenges to Success

While the possibilities these new platforms offer are numerous, they’ll first have to overcome a number of challenges. Technical limitations are a temporary issue. Beyond the enormous amount of very intelligent people dedicated to solving these problems, our rate of advancement as a civilization is clearly increasing. The biggest problems facing emerging technologies are not technical constraints, but market barriers the companies that could most benefit from development of these platforms will place in their own way, in an effort to prevent competitors from also benefiting. I’m confident these barriers will eventually be overcome, but not before they’ve delayed advancements for years, to the cost of everyone. The two biggest challenges to successful platform growth I see are centralization and controlled-access.

Why are these problems? First, let’s look at the defining characteristic of a successful platform: it’s easy to build on. Online platforms don’t have natural states of existence like the physical world does, of course, and the ease of building on these platforms is dependent on the tools for doing so. Facebook being the only social networking platform would be like Verizon being the only mobile web platform; without competition, there’s no motivation to offer better tools to entice developers to build on your platform. LinkedIn, a professionals social network, has plans to open their platform to provide that competition with Facebook. And though unlikely, there’s always the possibility that MySpace will try to slow its decline by opening its platform as well. As telecommunications companies are converging, smaller companies that want to compete would do well to attract users by offering significantly lower(which at the current state of these fees would also be known as “reasonable”) data transfer fees.

Controlled-access to these emerging platforms is another problem. Who should determine what can be built with users’ data? Companies, or users? Would computers be as useful as they are today if only programs created by Microsoft would be run on Windows? Or even if only programs *allowed* by Microsoft could be run on Windows, and Microsoft had the ability to ban a program from its operating system? Some controls are important to maintain user privacy, but open standards are necessary for increased innovation on these new platforms, and more importantly, interoperability between services. Businesses need to push Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Ecademy, Friendster, and other social networking sites to agree on a common set of standards, that can be used by all. Or would you rather build a separate widget/application for each? And then the next big site? And then the next one?

Open standards aren’t a loss for social networking sites, they’re a gain. Mark Zuckerberg should realize that building a platform is more than just “look at what others can do with your Facebook profile”. It’s also “look at what *you* can do with your Facebook profile”. Once social networking sites agree on open standards, other services can integrate those standards with confidence that they’ll last. So next time you sign up on a hobby site or forum, you can import your Facebook profile. When you sign up on a band’s fan site, you can let them see your MySpace songs. And when you register for a networking event, it can show you which associates from your LinkedIn network are attending. Widespread success in this kind of integration can only be made possible by open standards.

Emerging Platforms Are Up to You

Thank you for exploring the future of the web with me, I hope you’ll leave a comment below with your thoughts. A final word I want to leave you with is: you. It’s up to you to make the future of the web happen. There’s a huge amount of potential, as I hope you’ve seen from this article, but the barriers between us and reaching that potential are numerous. Misuse of patents, greed, and misunderstanding just to name a few. It’s up to you as a citizen to call your legislators and educate them. It’s up to you as a customer to let businesses know what you want and what you won’t stand for. And it’s up to you as a person to use what power you have to make things better. I’ll keep writing, and I hope you’ll keep reading me. But the future, is up to you.