The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet

18 Aug

An amusing development in the past year or so — if you regard post-Soviet finance as amusing — is that Russian investor Yuri Milner has, bit by bit, amassed one of the most valuable stakes on the Internet: He’s got 10 percent of Facebook. He’s done this by undercutting traditional American VCs — the Kleiners and the Sequoias who would, in days past, insist on a special status in return for their early investment. Milner not only offers better terms than VC firms, he sees the world differently. The traditional VC has a portfolio of Web sites, expecting a few of them to be successes — a good metaphor for the Web itself, broad not deep, dependent on the connections between sites rather than any one, autonomous property. In an entirely different strategic model, the Russian is concentrating his bet on a unique power bloc. Not only is Facebook more than just another Web site, Milner says, but with 500 million users it’s “the largest Web site there has ever been, so large that it is not a Web site at all.”

You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service.

You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web. And you are not alone.

This is not a trivial distinction. Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen). The fact that it’s easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend. Producers and consumers agree: The Web is not the culmination of the digital revolution.

A decade ago, the ascent of the Web browser as the center of the computing world appeared inevitable. It seemed just a matter of time before the Web replaced PC application software and reduced operating systems to a “poorly debugged set of device drivers,” as Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen famously said. First Java, then Flash, then Ajax, then HTML5 — increasingly interactive online code — promised to put all apps in the cloud and replace the desktop with the webtop. Open, free, and out of control.

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