What Wired's 1997 Web Death Knell Got Right

It does Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff at Wired credit that when they declared the death of the web, they pointed out that this wasn't the first time that the publication had rung the death knell for the browser.

That happened in 1997 in a feature called simply Push! written by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf. Anderson admits that the infamous article was wrong on the timeline and the technology but thinks that "the point was altogether prescient". Michael Arrington calls that "possibly the greatest explanation for being dead fucking wrong that I've ever seen." Gary Wolf, for his part, said it was the worst story ever published by Wired and has apologized for his role in it.

Which got me wondering. How bad are the predictions, really?

See if this sounds familiar to you. Push technology is about...

...ways to move seamlessly between media you steer (interactive) and media that steer you (passive). They promote media that merrily slip across channels, guiding human attention as it skips from desktop screen to phonetop screen to a car windshield. These new interfaces work with existing media, such as TV, yet they also work on hyperlinked text.

I use a browser to do it, but this sounds an awful lot like how I use the web today, (mercifully) minus the windshield. YouTube, Hulu, Netflix on Demand, browser games, this sounds a whole lot like push media and I'm using them all in conjunction with traditional web pages. I use tools like Instapaper, Podcasts, and Google Reader to shuttle and sync material between devices so they are available to me in whatever context.

I also have a variety of alerts set up so that I know when there are things I need to know. This would come as no surprise to Kelly or Wolf who tell us:

Networked communications need interfaces that hop across nodes, exploiting the unique character of distributed connections. Technology that, say, follows you into the next taxi you ride, gently prodding you to visit the local aquarium, all the while keeping you up-to-date on your favorite basketball team's game in progress. Another device might chime on your wrist, letting you know that the route home is congested with traffic, and flashing the address of a restaurant where you can eat cut-rate sushi while waiting it out. At home on your computer, the same system will run soothing screensavers underneath regular news flashes, all the while keeping track, in one corner, of press releases from companies whose stocks you own. With frequent commercial messages, of course.

This... this sounds an awful lot like Twitter. Twitter pushes opt-in messages to your phone, browser extension, desktop client, conference hall screen, live newscast, and wherever else people think to display them. RSS with the advent of tech like PubSubHubbub also serve this role. With applications like Flipboard, Instapaper or Foursquare not to mention new tech like Arduino or Botanicals, these streams talk to pages, apps, devices and who knows what else. Dare I say? It's all push.

Further in still, Kelly and Wolff consider the fate of the browser.

But hang on. The good old page browser won't disappear. It will migrate. The little string of code that fetches and displays HTML documents will go forth and multiply, making what your browser does today second nature to all your other applications. The browser becomes invisible by becoming ubiquitous. It submerges inside other programs, removing itself from our consciousness.

The browser removed from our consciousness? Check. No one knows what a browser is. And there is no question that browsers have gone forth and multiplied. Just about every app on my phone has a built in browser, the better to avoid having to quit and relaunch when I click on one of the many links that suffuse the net.

But this prediction doesn't really feel right, because the main browser still remains the hub for viewing web content. On iOS devices, every built in browser has an "Open in Safari" link, the better to shuttle pages back and forth so they can be linked, shared, bookmarked, or installed on the homescreen.

Indeed it's on the question of what the interface would be that the Push! article really falls down.

Of course some kind of interface is absolutely vital to life on the screen. The design of what is emerging - what glyph sits where or which icon does what - is now neither clear nor important. All kinds of designs are being tried. The labs of PointCast, ESPNET SportsZone, and CNET buzz as 20-year-old hotshots conjure up specific manifestations. What is clear is that regardless of what they come up with, the outlines of a new type of media are visible. A practical interface for distributed, point-to-point media will blossom and thrive. What is about to disappear is the defining role of the old Web.

What they didn't expect was that the browser would turn out to be that interface. Call it Web 2.0 and the rise of AJAX. All those push applications, from Twitter to Hulu turn out to have a web interface and for the most part that's how we use them.

Now, if you are a dedicated user of one service or another, you'll probably find yourself installing a custom client that is streamlined for your needs and for the service. But the web interface remains the zero-investment way of trying and getting used to a service and for many of them, the only one we need.

The last bit that the article gets into is how this will impact the desktop. They name check Netscape's never-released Constellation and Microsoft's near-useless Active Desktop.

Like Constellation, you don't have to launch anything to see it; the content launches itself from the level of the OS. The way they like to think about it is that Microsoft is expanding the desktop to take over the browser.

Both of these failed to go anywhere, but the idea lives on. We know them today as widgets. Every desktop OS and most smartphones ship with them.

Push media will penetrate environments that have, in the past, been media-free - work, school, church, the solitude of a country walk. Through cheap wireless technologies, push media are already colonizing the world's last quiet nooks and crannies.

Does your theatre pause between ads and trailers to remind you to turn off your cellphone? Mine does.

While it got the main claim ("the browser is dead") wrong, when you tilt your head and squint at it in a certain way, it's fascinating to realize how much Push! got right.