For the longest time the web community has been heralding the arrival of mobile. Now that it has hit the mainstream and turned the industry upside down, what will the next evolution of the web be?
With many of us struggling to come to terms with the implications of the mobile web, it may seem insanity to be talking about the next big thing already. However, as you will discover the first glimpses are already here.
So what is the next big thing? I believe that it will be the post GUI web.
The post GUI web
Throughout most of its short life the web has been primarily navigated through a graphic user interface (GUI). Information has been accessed by clicking links, buttons and interacting with forms. Content has been returned in the form of web pages that have each been individually branded based on the source of the information.
However, things are about to change and we are already beginning to see the seeds of these changes.
At its core the web is a tool for finding information. That information might be about the services offered by a great web design company or the train times between London and Salisbury. Whatever the case, the task is the same; request and retrieve information.
To date requests for information have been done via a search engine, and retrieval has happened in the form of a web page. However, with the arrival of Siri and Google Glasses we are seeing this user journey change.
Instead of searching, users are beginning to request information verbally and using natural language. This is far from perfect at the moment, but it is the beginning of a new way of interacting with the web.
But it isn’t just requesting information that has changed. It is also retrieval.
Beyond the web page
Where once retrieval consisted of returning a webpage, applications such as Siri now return specific data that answers your question. For example if you ask what films are showing at your local cinema it will not redirect you to a website, but instead return movie listings directly within the app.
Upcoming wearable technologies such as Google glasses and various smart watches, take a similar approach to data retrieval. Instead of returning a webpage they simply provide you with the snippet of information you require.
Its not just about moving listings
Currently the data being returned is limited to a relatively small and somewhat predictable subset of information. Movie listings, local restaurants and sports results all lend themselves particularly well to being handled in this fashion. However there is no reason that this model could not be applied to a much greater range of information.
For example, it is easy to imagine a day when you could ask Siri to show you charity websites designed by local web design agencies, in order to help you select the right supplier.
Instead of returning a set of results for web design sites that you would have to manually navigate through, Siri would instead return examples from the various website portfolios.
All that is required to make content accessible in this way is a consistent set of data across multiple sites. In other words every web design portfolio needs to be marked up in the same way so that the data can easily be extracted.
This is something that proponents of the semantic web have been after for some time, but we are finally beginning to see this become a reality.
Google, Bing and Yahoo have joined forces to launch their own standards about how data is presented. This set of schemas provides consistent markup for everything from ratings and reviews to organisations and events.
The impact on the web community
If the web does move away from documents to a collection of data, this has profound implications on the existing web community.
The role of traditional web designer will alter as the nature of the user’s experience changes.
As content owners we will need to stop thinking of our content in terms of a greater whole but make each piece stand in its own right, separate from the website it is currently a part of. In fact, this is something that we already need to be considering as I explain in a recent article at econsultancy.com.
What should we be doing?
What if anything should you be doing about this today? With a few exceptions there is probably no immediate hurry to prepare for this shift in the web.
Applications such as Siri or Google glasses currently rely on access to data sources rather than extracting content from semantically marked up webpages. That means unless you have a data source that companies like Apple or Google are particularly keen to access, the move to a post GUI interface is still some way off.
That said there is nothing to stop you marking up web pages with meta data providing additional information about them. It is relatively straightforward to implement the meta data requested by schema.org, Facebook or Twitter.
At the very least you need to start looking at your content in a different way. You need to stop thinking it will always be viewed within the context of your website and start considering the different types of data you provide.
More content types than you would think
You will probably be surprised to discover that you have a lot more datasets than you initially think.
For example you would think that a blogs such as this contains no more datasets than a series of posts. In reality it includes many different types of content such as:
- Questions and answers
- Organisational information
- Contact methods
- Site features
If marked up correctly a user of a post-GUI device could ask questions of Boagworld like:
- Show me all the posts written by Leigh Howells.
- List episodes of the podcast that mention the semantic web.
- How many seasons of the Boagworld podcast have there been?
- Find me a contact email address for boagworld.com
Equally they could ask broader questions of the web as a whole that might return boagworld results. These might include:
- Play a podcast that talks about Facebook Open Graph.
- Read me the most popular blog post about calls to action.
- List the top 10 most listened to web design podcasts.
- Where should I start with the mobile web?
Don’t be complacent
You may be tempted to think that this is not something you need to start planning for yet. However, I think there is a warning against this kind of thinking in the form of the mobile web. As I said at the beginning of this post, many in the web community were talking about a radical shift to mobile devices as early as 2006. We had ample warning this change was coming and yet many companies and web designers were caught by surprise when the current wave of smart phones hit. Do not make the same mistake again. Always keep an eye on the horizon.