In the early days of the Internet, Yahoo’s directory service was the way we surfed the web because it was still indexable and classifiable by human editors. But the web grew too fast for this to last. The first-generation of search engines such as Altavista, Lycos, Webcrawler and Excite mirrored the pages on the web and provided textual search capabilities on the documents. It was good for a short while, until spammers figured out how to infiltrate the system. For a while, it seemed we would need to go back to maintaining bookmarks and remembering URLs to go to different sites. And then along come Google with its PageRank technology, which enabled search based on the importance of pages as measured by incoming links. Search was back in vogue—and has stayed that way ever since.
Much of the web that we see around us is the Reference Web. The content is mostly static. Pretty much anything digital will be accessible at our fingertips, if it is not already so. It is like being in a large digital library. Millions of websites have aggregated all kinds of information and made it available for anyone, mostly for free. More than a decade of enhancements in publishing technology has also made it simple for users to add to the treasure trove that’s already out there.
For a long time, the Reference Web was mostly about text and images. This is changing. Bandwidth improvements are now making it easy to access multimedia content. YouTube has become the world’s largest repository of short-form video content. Most media houses are also starting to make available their video libraries. The longer form of video content, TV shows and movies are also slowly getting out on the Internet, as content owners realize that the costs of making them available are small compared with the potential for monetisation (largely through advertising).
The content in the world-wide web is designed primarily for a big screen and hence the PC is the window into that web.
In contrast, the Live Web is incremental in space, time and topics. I also think of this as the Now-Near Web (the N3 Web). It is about the “real-time” event stream. It is just getting created and used. This web needs to have almost instantaneous publishing and distribution capabilities. It is about knowing what my friends are doing now, it is about knowing the traffic on the route I am about to take, it is about knowing what’s happening in my neighbourhood this evening.
Search engines are the primary way to navigate the Reference Web. We no longer bookmark sites or even try and remember their URLs; we Google everything. This becomes possible because we trust Google to have made a copy of everything that has been created and appropriately ingested it with its algorithms. Search works very well with the PC screen—most of the space is taken up by the results, with some relevant ads thrown around. This works well for us, the search engines and the advertisers.
As the Live Web starts to assume greater importance in our lives, search on a PC will no longer be the dominant form of interaction. Instead, I believe, it will be subscriptions delivered to a mobile screen. Let me explain.
The Live Web is about events and incremental information. There are a number of things we would like to know as soon as they happen. The best way for this is to set up an “alert”. So, when we want to track something, we can set up a subscription to that site. All that the site needs to do is to publish its new content via RSS and then “ping” a central server whenever it gets updated. That server can also track who all have set up subscriptions for the site, and therefore can be immediately notified. The mobile is the perfect device to send an alert to since we can be pretty sure the user will see the message almost immediately.
In emerging markets such as India, access to the PC is still limited, but mobiles (and SMS for now) can reach more than 150 million users. Even those who access the PC don’t do so all the time—a majority goes to a cybercafé once in a few days. The mobile thus becomes the ideal device to send information about the Live Web. Search does not become irrelevant for the Live Web. We will still use it for things we cannot subscribe to in advance. My point is that subscription will be the dominant way we interact with the Live Web, just like search is the primary way we interface with the Reference Web.
With this change in behaviour and device, the business model will also morph—advertising as the dominant model on the Internet will give way to “invertising”. On the mobile, as greater control shifts to the user, advertising will need to be rethought as invertising—information that users invite into their lives.
Think of the relationships one would like to have, wherein we are as interested in knowing what’s new as the business is in letting us know. The neighbourhood kirana store, the bookshop, the multiplex, the phone manufacturer, the supermarket—these will form the anchor for the invertising-centric business model of the Live Web. They will all be willing to pay a relationship fee to maintain an open communication channel to customers.
Rajesh Jain is managing director of Netcore Solutions. He has posted a series on the emerging Internet at www.emergic.org. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org