Disintegration of the Internet

The technology industry oscillated between extremes. It comes in waves, tides go in and out, moving towards toward the terminal model, pushing functionality to the “mainframe” server for a few years, and then away again toward having powerful client computer that does all the work. Monolithic applications bloat for several years and then are split into simpler applications, which then join together and bloat again. There’s a constant tug-of-war between those who want more features and those who want simplicity. After years of moving more and more towards huge monolithic web application providers, I’m beginning to suspect that it’s time for things to swing back the other way.

Back in February, Facebook launched a new mobile app called “Paper”, which provides a new interface for accessing and posting status updates, as well as providing access to news stories. I didn’t hear about this application until just recently, but it seems like it may be an important change in direction from an ongoing trend for Facebook. Along with their Messenger app, Whatsapp, and Instagram, Facebook seems to be moving more of their functionality into a series of apps aimed at serving an individual need rather than putting more and more functionality into a single all-encompassing application.

Facebook had started out as a simple social networking website, and over the years has been adding features and integrating services into a one-stop web application for all of your Internet needs. Some have speculated that in the future, Facebook, rather than a search engine, would become the site that binds your Internet experience together. In response, Google had taken many of the services they had developed and purchased— most obviously Google Voice, Google Buzz, Blogger, Picassa, and Google Talk— and integrated them all into Google+. It seemed more and more that these sites were intended to be the portal through which we viewed the entire online world. Then came a reversal. Though I hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time, both Google and Facebook split their messaging features off into independent apps, into Hangouts and Messenger respectively. In hindsight, I believe those releases should be looked at as an important turning point in the development of the Internet, but it didn’t strike me until I downloaded Facebook’s new Paper application.

This is speculation on my part, but I believe this fragmentation is a sign that the Internet juggernauts have realized that the strategy of integrating everything into a central service was flawed. Putting so many different features into one website, or a single mobile app, must limit the speed at which new features can be developed. Each feature must be integrated into the larger application as a whole in a way that users can understand. Features that don’t fit into the larger vision for the application have to be left out. The integration of features into a monolithic application can also make the application harder for the end users to navigate. Every feature needs to be squeezed in somewhere, which means another menu item, or another button. This all increases the chances that the user will feel lost, confused, or overwhelmed.

What I find to be even worse is that the integration limits your choice in web applications and mobile applications.   For example, I can’t easily use Google+ for my photo storage and then post them into my Facebook feed. If I want the photos to appear in Facebook, I have to upload them to Facebook. Using the best service for each feature is not really an option, which I find unfortunate even if Facebook and Google prefer it that way.

What I think might be happening is that you may be seeing a disintegration of these services– not a “disintegration” as in a dissolution and destruction, but dis-integration: the opposite of “integration”. I doubt that things will work out the way I’d like them to, since the business interests involved are splintered and in opposition to each other, but the idea has me wishing for reorganization and reordering of the Internet that creates a common shared infrastructure among different “cloud” services.

Under this new schema that I’m imagining, instead of aggregating massive amounts of functionality into giant web platforms, the idea would be to have a series of interlocking tools, somewhat like Unix command-line tools that can be enabled to perform complex processing by piping data from one tool to the next. In order for things to work the way that I’m thinking about, large portions of the Internet would need to be reorganized into the following services:

  • Integrated Identity Management and Account Management
  • Service-agnostic storage
  • Content capturing and creation tools
  • Content publishing and distribution channels.

It’s won’t be easy for me to describe what I have in mind, so in my next post, I’ll do my best to describe what I mean by “identity management” and how I think it should work.