Screw The Web!

There are two topics I’d like to discuss in this article. While superficially they may seem only tangentially related, I liken them to two sides of the same coin. Let’s start with the heads side of this coin, an anthropomorphic cue that well befits the first topic.

The iPad and the Web.

Ignoring for a moment that it’s only available in the U.S. so far, the iPad is officially here, and if you’re a designer, developer or content creator of any kind, you should be ecstatic and thrilled by its arrival.

As soon as the iPad was first announced by Apple earlier this year, well-respected technology writers—programmers with a penchant for open source software, in most cases—voiced their fears and frustrations about the product and the associated platform. It subconsciously scared them, as the iPad represented the first real computer that anyone could use, eroding their lifelong-built reputation as computer expert. As if using an iPad would already make anyone an expert, but I digress.

Despite these cries of concern, smart content creators and publishers alike were immediately excited. To them, the idea of there being a computing platform anyone could use simply represented great new opportunities.

Taking a step back to look at the computer industry as it was, prior to the iPad launch, we see three real platforms of significance: there is the highly ubiquitous Windows, with versions from XP to Windows 7 widely in use; then there is the Mac, with its famous Mac OS X and its ease of use that has attracted people from the Windows camp for years at increasing rates. Finally, we have the mobile platform, dominated in usage and popularity by the iPhone and iPod Touch but being represented by a wealth of different operating systems, interfaces and devices.

In this view of the industry Mac OS X led the pack in terms of ease of use, until the iPhone came out. Whilst based on the same core frameworks, the Native User Interface of the iPhone’s multitouch screen presented us all with an interface to a computer—small and limited in power, admittedly, but a computer nonetheless—that was even orders of magnitude easier to use than the Mac.

What’s happened now is that the iPad has taken the iPhone’s ease of use, and combined it with the “real computer” power and screen real estate of desktop PC’s and laptops. It sits comfortably in the middle between smartphone and desktop computer, but uncomfortably for people not ready to see these lifestyle changes that it represents, trickling into people’s lives.

Where the iPad sets itself apart, aside of the all-multitouch interface, is how it can perform 80% of the things that 80% of people use a computer for, yet the 20% of people that remain are complaining about the 20% of things the iPad doesn’t do, sometimes ignoring what it can do. I’m comparing it mostly to netbooks and lower-end laptops, as serious digital media work (Photoshop, for instance) is not what anyone was expecting to do on these cheaper devices. So why are people of all skill levels, of all ages and of all professions so excited about the iPad? It’s not that it does 80% of what people use a laptop or a desktop for; it’s how it does that 80% of those things. The key difference is User Experience.

I’ll put it you plainly: User Experience trumps everything.

Anyone remember the iPod? From day one, the iPod had fewer features than competing devices of the same breed, but the features it did have were done so exceptionally well that customers around the world were drawn to the device like moths to a flame. The moment the iPod hit the mainstream it became a runaway success, and to this day it remains a clear market leader in the field of portable music players.

Then, years later, came the iPhone which―for its third year in a row―leads the list in customer satisfaction by a huge margin. Again, people don’t care about features as much as they care about ease of use and how enjoyable it is to use. It is in this aspect that Apple’s products are noticeable winners, and over the past ten years more and more people have started to discover this.

Oh, and let’s not forget: people are also still buying iPods by the millions today.

So, you may wonder casually, what does any of this have to do with the web?

Again, I’ll put it plainly: the Web has shitty UX.

No, really. It does.

Let’s start with the fact that we have browsers. As in, multiple ones. Do we actually need multiple browsers? Well sure, having multiple browsers breeds innovation through competition. Then again, it has also stifled as much innovation through market share dominance by one single browser. Many people like to consider the Web as the “one true platform” because it is both extremely ubiquitous and interoperable. It is founded entirely on open standards, but here’s a question: if the Web were to be the “one true platform,” then what is the user’s benefit to having multiple browsers to choose from? It means different features, but different features produce different experiences of the web. Having different experiences of the same thing is antithetical to the “one-ness” we all would like to consider the Web to be.

It’s not even one platform anyway. We don’t have “one Web” with equal, ubiquitous access for all. We have “the Web as experienced through IE6”, “the Web as experienced through Safari 4”, “the Web as experienced through Opera 10.5” and so on and so forth. There are a thousand browsers and browser versions out there, and the Web is a little bit different in all of them.

Oh, and then there’s mobile. The mobile Web is an entirely different beast altogether, furthering this disconnect.

HTML, CSS and Javascript (note: not Flash) are the “one” true open standard when it comes to platforms; their ubiquity and portability means that any content meant for widespread distribution should be stored in either HTML, or in an XML-based format which is easily transformed into and repurposed as HTML. However, as a platform these three technologies offer only decent user experiences at best.

When did you last go to a site and went “wow, this is really awesome!” as you used it? Okay, so Mike Matas‘ new site did that for me, but only when I tried it on a fairly new iMac—on my MacBook Air—hardly a slouch of a machine—the experience was painfully slow.

Pictory is another fine example of a site that offers a great user experience, but to say it really comes alive like Mike’s site—for those moments where you wouldn’t mind it to come alive, anyway—well… no, not really. For something that lives on an interactive medium, it’s a pretty static experience.

The performance of the technologies that make the Web is still embarrassing compared to an average desktop application or video game. At the recent SXSW conference, Cennydd Bowles called out for beautiful web design, wanting more truly great and engaging experiences that could merit the label “art” rather than just “website”. To this day, Mike Matas’ site and Pictory are the only two examples I can think of that deserve this honor (and use only open standards; I’ve seen a couple of great Flash sites, but until Flash becomes an open standard I don’t feel right to include it[1]).

So screw the Web, for it is too limiting for us creators—be we designer or developer or content writer or otherwise—to build things that inspire and instill a sense of wonder in its audience. We should be thrilled by the iPad (and the new breed of similar devices soon to follow), because it offers us a chance to break free from our DOM-driven chains and CSS hackery and actually use a platform that’s designed from the ground up to deliver amazing user experiences.

The other side of the coin

There is a second reason we should embrace the iPad and similar. Offering a much richer User Experience is great, and seductively appealing to any passionate creator, but making something for both the iPad and the Web involves a lot of work. Crazy amounts of more work, if you do it right. So how are we supposed to make time for all that? After all, time is money—right?

Money, indeed. Speaking of which, did you know that the Web is used largely by a bunch of self-entitling freeloaders? People who strongly feel they should have access to all its content—the content we painstakingly create—for free? I bet that more than half of you reading this would, if honest with yourself, join me in acknowledging to belong to this group of people from time to time, here and there. We take the free content on the web for granted, so much so that we’ve collectively threatened multiple entire industries to go under and collapse under their own weight. Oh, sure, “they” just couldn’t figure out how to make money from the Web. “They” were just doing it all wrong. “They” clung too hard to their old business models.

Newsflash: just because some of us can make a living from publishing our content for free on the web doesn’t mean entire industries can do the same. The Web’s audience is the most reluctant audience ever to spend a penny, in part because we’ve been giving them tons of content for free all these years. Wikipedia, arguably one of the Internet’s most valuable resources, has never charged anyone a dime for access to its content. The creation of its content may have been without (direct) costs, but keeping the site online has cost the organization fortunes. Countless of generous donations from readers and users alike have kept the site going for years now.

Again, though: not every site can survive solely on the generosity of its audience.

The Web is a tricky place for major industries to make money from, and its limiting user experience potential has undoubtedly played a part in this. After all, iTunes and the iPhone AppStore have proven without a shadow of a doubt that most people are perfectly happy to pay for content. We all know that it has cost someone time, effort and money to create something we like and want; it’s not like we’re really a bunch of freeloaders who never want to pay for goods and services. We just have a set of unwritten rules that determine whether or not we feel pushed across the threshold of paying for things:

  • How easy can I get it? (Easier is better; any friction in the process is a deterrent)
  • How easy can I pay for it? (Again, easier and faster is better, but trust is an issue that plays a role here, too)
  • How affordable is it? (cheaper is usually better, but too cheap makes us think it’s also cheap in quality; it should feel very affordable for the quality you perceive to get)

There is another factor in play: getting it before paying for it. Humans love free stuff, even just free samples or “tasters,” if you will. If we can use something for a while before having to pay for it, so much the better.

Thinking of the Web right now? I hope so; you’d realize the glaring problem of how we’ve established a culture online wherein you get everything for free. Not just a sample, no; the whole shebang, right there in your browser. Only after fifteen years did people start to realize they were losing income elsewhere because of this, and then clumsily reacted in the utmost of knee-jerk reactions, asking “oh, could you pay us some money for that?”—after the user had already consumed the delectable content.

Given all of this, it is no wonder it’s been so damn hard to make money off of content on the web. It’s super-easy to get to (yay!), thus attracting tons of people, but it’s not at all easy to pay for (boo!) and who the hell has really figured out what any of this is worth, anyway? What would you charge for the content of your blog or photo-site? Would you charge recurring fees, or pay-per-content chunk? And even if you have figured all that out, how do you make it easy enough for people to pay for it, and trustworthy enough that many people will pay for it? Pay walls that prevent the user from seeing the content until they first pay up are not a good solution; articles and pages online are not like groceries in the supermarket, nor is your entire site akin to being a car at the dealership. The Web just won’t ever work that way; it was envisioned and created as an idealistic platform of information with equal and unequivocal access for all. That’s admirable and beautiful in every way, but it kind of forgets about the concept of commerce and people’s needs to make money and continue with their lives.

Fortunately, we now have the iPad, which has the potential to change an entire Web of non-paying people into customers who are all too eager and willing to pay even just a tiny sum here and there for the content they consume. The iPhone has whet their appetites, and the AppStore and Android marketplace have proven that people are really not freeloaders at all, but the small device screens and limited horsepower are no match for the sheer brilliant capabilities of what the iPad represents: a powerful platform of unparalleled user experiences, with an audience that will, once again, happily pay for content.

It’s time to stop seeing the Web as the be-all, end-all platform because of its interoperability, and start accepting that multiple platforms and varying user experiences are more commercially viable.

  1. Flash, in principle, promises the best of both worlds: huge interoperability, and rich, powerful tools that easily enable us to create great user experiences. Sadly, in practice it turns out to be the opposite, getting us the worst of both worlds: a proprietary technology that suffers from some terrible user experience issues and isn’t even reliably interoperable.

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