The world recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Internet, the creation of Tim Berners-Lee. Like other networks before it, this new infrastructure changed the pace and nature of connectivity.
Every large and small organisation and government, as well as individuals, raced to stake out their place on the Internet. They linked documents and information, showcased their brands, started selling products, and told citizens what the government was doing for them.
‘Citizen-centric’ in the first quarter century of the web was redefined. “Go online” was the mantra – it will be faster, cheaper and easier. And so it began.
This mantra morphed into “put all high volume transactions online”. Organisations flung open their doors, and put everything “online” – like hanging the washing out on the front porch.
Websites unleashed an unimagined nightmare of complexity onto the citizen with great lists of forms, even lists of apps, lots of information nested in a hierarchy of web pages, beautifully bureaucratically and legally written but not easily found or understood. The forms industry boomed.
With the proliferation of websites came the strategic response – “portals” – the mega websites that would consume and link to all other websites. A structured response to a structured nightmare.
Everything vacuumed into the portal and a labyrinth of feeding websites. A hierarchy of everything where people would be able to find things. Not so, according to former Australian government, CIO Glenn Archer who last year said expectations for usage of ‘one stop shop’ portals have not been met.
This is the structured era - the structured world of data, forms, formats, websites and mega portals. This era imbeds great cost and complexity. “Web” teams in organisations across the globe groaning under the load while on the outside, citizens face unfathomable confusion and complexity.
On both sides of the pane of glass, the structured approach is unsustainable and beyond its use-by date.
The structured era presents barriers for most people - the website paradigm significantly impacts people with different needs, and particularly as we age.
Sure, many organisations present content in various languages and some content compliant with accessibility standards. But fundamentally, structure imbeds complexity, institutionalises barriers and comes at great cost to the human experience.
For 25 years, the web world was defined by structure and rigid rules and millions of organisations around the world fell into line. Everything had to adapt, including people.
People – regardless of their abilities - had to adapt to this structured world of nested complexity. Why on earth would we assume that this paradigm would continue?
Eventually even the web confronts its own ripping point – and this is the kernel of all other ripping points. The ripping point of the 25-year-old web has started – a phase change where the structured era evolves into the era of unstructured data.
The emergence and convergence of cognitive computing, adaptive interfaces and natural language change the fundamentals of computing and the very nature of the Internet. “Websites” and everything on them – all the millions of forms – and all the portals – will disappear.
The web won't be a place you go, or a library of forms to fill in. Information will be exchanged through natural language conversations – not structured forms. The evolving web becomes deeply pervasive, context sensitive, aware, and adaptive.
Access becomes contextual – not via a website or portal. The realisation and reality is that identity is also contextual and adaptive – not a separate process.
In the structured era – people were forced to adapt. In the unstructured era, the interfaces – the context – adapts to the person.
Very soon, we will look back on “websites” as quaint curiosities – a metaphor for a fleeting quarter of a century where the race to “go online” took longer than the race to the moon.
Adaptation defines the unstructured era – and a world without websites is coming very quickly.
Time to ditch the website strategies and prepare for the next quarter century horizon – the human accessible web - as imagined by Tim Berners-Lee.
Marie Johnson is chair of the Digital Careers National Steering Committee, and is a Board Director of the Australian Information Industry Association. She is also managing director and chief digital officer at the Centre for Digital Business.
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