Monday, June 9, 2008

The web as distinct from its applications

In a fairly interesting article pondering what the next big platform, or platforms might be, Josh Quittner parenthesizes:
(Yes, the Web is nothing more than a big layer of code; all those websites we visit are merely applications that sit atop it.)
Now, I think I get what angle this is coming from. I've argued myself that you don't interact with "the web" but with a web application. Even so, I don't think the picture above is quite right, or even quite consistent. The web applications are indeed a layer of code. But if they sit on top of the web itself, then what is the web itself?

Muddying the waters a bit is the recent swing towards fatter clients, represented by the AJAX head of the Web 2.0 hydra, but for my purposes here it doesn't much matter where the code is sitting, whether in the browser or at the other end of the connection. Wherever the code is running, there's you, there are "all those websites" and either
  • Nothing else, in which case the applications aren't a layer on top of the web, they are the web.
  • Something else, in which case what?
I'm reasonably comfortable with either view. Either one can be made to fit my earlier working definition of the web as "all resources accessible on the net".

That definition is deliberately vague on what a resource is. If by resource you mean "web application", then you have the "nothing else" view. This works as long as you include the application's data with the application. That's reasonable, and good if you have an "active data" point of view.

On the other hand, the original web was (largely but not completely) about hypertext documents linked to each other, and the modern web is still very much about documents (or other data sets) and links between them. Much of the modern machinery is about either finding documents more effectively or about presenting the findings in a more useful or interactive way.

Following this line of reasoning a bit, you can use different applications to get at the same resources, and the same application to get at different resources. If the resources are the web, then the applications stand in an M:N relation to them, certainly not 1:1, and are thus clearly a different thing.

That's not to say that a resource can't itself be an application, say an annoying popup-filled multimedia experience. Rather, a resource isn't always an application, an application that accesses the web isn't necessarily a web resource, and the web does not appear to be a big layer of code with websites sitting on top of it.

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