What We Talk About When We Talk About the Web

Over its two decades, the web has passed through two epochs, each heavily informed by technologies and practices that came before.

The “pre-cambrian” age was the web of pages. Our design practices were informed by the tradition of print design. As developers we were creating in essence “interactive paper.”

Over time we learned to distinguish where the legacies of print design helped us, and where they held us back.

While this era continues, a second, described by Scott Jensen as “Jurassic”, is upon us. The age of apps. Just as print informed our design of web pages and sites, the decades&emdashlong history of developing apps weighs heavily on the web applications we are building today.
And just as web designers and developers needed to learn from, and in part discard the tradition of print, so too now do we need to learn from, and in part discard the tradition of apps. Only then will the web find its true self.

But what might this more “pure” web look like? For users? For developers? For designers? What technologies will we need to build it? Can we start building it today?

In this presentation John Allsopp, author of A Dao of Web Design, considered by many as “a manifesto for everyone working on the web” will outline what he believes are the foundational principles of this web, and look at existing, as well as emerging technologies available to designers and developers to start building the once and future web.

“Warning: you will get nothing practical and useful out of this! It’s a philosophical discussion.”

Reference “what we talk about when we talk about love” in which two couples discuss love. You’d think even if we couldn’t define it we would know it when we saw it. But in the book people disagree deeply.

So how does this apply to WDS? Well, what is the web?

The proverb of the blind men and the elephant teaches us observation is important… but the web is constantly changing whether we observe or not; it does not exist as an object; it is the product of our minds.

But as a city is more than its buildings and roads and places, the web is more than specs and implementation.

To understand we need to look back and understand where we came from.

Precambrian web

TimBL built the web – the protocols and the tools. But they were very simple, links for example were one-directional, non-annotatable hyperlinks. It was very simple and not extensible.

Sometimes it’s the things which don’t change that are interesting. The principles of the web haven’t changed. TimBL later wrote ‘the web and the web of life’ which clearly links real world philosophical principles to the principles driving the web. Decentralisation, invention expecting the results to be good but unpredictable. Tolerance – a tolerant protocol is robust. Interoperability.

“try to find screenshots of websites from the early nineties…”

In the early days even the conversations were difficult – Microsoft had a conflicting definition of what a “link” was (“embed here” not “go there”). There was no W3C, just a rough working consensus of code – and the consensus was often very rough.

Cambrian explosion

There was a great deal of innovation going on – IMG, FONT even the allegedly-meant-as-a-joke BLINK. Speaking about things like accessibility and cross-browser support was often referred to as holding things back.

Creating Killer Websites was a massive book; and the website was…well…we’d consider it terrible but people were so excited about it!

From this era things like the Web Standards Project were born, where people were trying to sell the standards-based approach. They’d been talking about a better way to build things.


Then IE5 for mac and IE6 for windows happened… and they introduced doctype switching so you could move forward without breaking the old; and they supported CSS quite well.

The 2002 Wired redesign was news; and the CSS Zen Garden showed what was possible.

The conversations about the web change the web. We do need to take time to think about what we do, not just spend all our time on implementation.

But a lot of talking was referring to the past; and redoing things better.

Around this point the name AJAX appeared; which encouraged people to talk about an idea that had been around for a while. Giving things a name changes things because it enables people to talk about it.

Generally people talked about Web 2.0. (a term used in Darcy DiNucci’s “Fragmented Future” article)


The current discussions around HTML5 “readiness” remind John of the Making Killer Websites conversations. We focus on what’s bad (eg. peformance) and not enough about the great things we can do with it.

Scott Jensen describes native apps as a remnant of the Jurassic period of the web.

Many discussions now are focussing on minutiae and not so much about where we are going. Talking about how things look; how we can make them… important discussions but not the only ones to have.

Walter Benjamin – Theses on the Philosophy of History; pictures the angel of history having his face turned to the past.

We should think of ourselves standing on the beach of a vast ocean with continents beyond the horizon; talking about how best to ride waves back to shore. We should think about going forwards too.

“I want to walk about a web that isn’t just a two point oh.” How can it augment us, how can it help us know ourselves better, know our society better, know our world better. How can it help stop us killing ourselves and our planet – to understand the true cost and result of our actions.

What will this web look like? That’s what John wants to talk about when we talk about the web.

Of course we will still design interactions and they will still be interesting interactions. We will still be using all the techincal pieces and talk about those things; but we need to rediscover the unpredictability that made the web grow. We need to look into the future and not focus on history, look ahead not behind.

“So that’s what we should talk about when we talk about the web: we should talk about the future.”


Miles E: is Win8 the dream, of the web being “native”?

John: it’s not the first time we’ve seen this, there have been other implementations using web technology as their native technology. Win8 is probably the most ambitious attempt to date. It’s a lot of the way there. At the moment though it’s not 100%, the capabilities exposed to a Win8 app still aren’t all made available to the browser. But we’re still thinking about apps, discrete packages of code – silos of functionlity. But what about decoupled things, small pieces loosely coupled.

This is not all to say we’re talking about the wrong things – just that we should ask “what else should we be talking about”.

Chaals: one of the reasons why we build apps is because we can sell them. In the future where does the money go?

John: it’s kind of a miracle that the money’s in apps. If you are not in the top 250 apps in the iOS store you will not make enough money to support two developers…

Really we are building services, not apps. Users engage with that service (netflix, amazon) not the specific apps. Business is in service. Some people make a lot of money making apps; but so too some people make a lot of money gambling. We’re success-biased.