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Jan 7, 2005 3:19am

bill thompson is wrong

I know it's fashionable to be an iconoclast and all, but this article called "Dump The World Wide Web!" is just silly:

But enough is enough. Just as it is sometimes necessary to demolish old buildings to make way for new, so it is time to move on from the web. It isn't as if we need to look far for an alternative -- we've had one since 1990 when the web was just starting to emerge from CERN physics lab. Its called "distributed processing" and it enables programs to talk to each other in a far richer, more complex and more useful way than the web's standards could ever support.


Here's where I think Bill errs:

  • The Web was conceived as a pragmatic approach to a publishing problem. The reason that Berners-Lee's work took off like it did was because it was so basic anyone could understand it and get to work: "When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web he wanted a simple text-based publishing tool for the high-energy physics community, and a simple markup language that let authors specify headings and link to other documents was fine." The World-Wide Web got the cold shoulder from the hypertext community, and it lacked the academic polish that other, more Correct applications had. Nevertheless, as Jason Kottke says, here we are. Any argument founded on the idea that the Web is not good enough because it isn't complete or correct enough is highly suspect, because academic correctness was never the point.
  • Bill invokes Microsoft's initial focus on the AOL-like Microsoft Network as evidence that the Web wasn't worthy of attention. Microsoft did not ignore the Web, it tried to ignore the whole Internet, and it did so for economic reasons rather than technical ones. "(Microsoft) never liked the Web and it was only the horrible realisation that every company, every net user and every competitor was going to invest a vast amount of money, effort and resources making it seem like it worked that forced Bill Gates to turn the company around and give it a Web focus late in 1995." That just sounds like the same old M.O. from Microsoft, where new technologies are watched from afar until they prove profitable, then seized wholesale after the difficult pioneering work has been done by others. Fortunately, the Internet isn't a thing, it's an agreement, so it wasn't a market that MS could monopolize.
  • Bill contends that such services as news publishing or e-commerce would be better served through the creation of special-purpose protocols and applications, rather than general-purpose browsers, and cites the use of mail clients as evidence that special clients for special content are acceptable. If Bill were writing an article about why we should dump e-mail, I suspect that he would be arguing that advertising mail deserves a special program separate from personal mail. I submit that any new publishing or information service which doesn't use a general-purpose browser faces an uphill battle, and if it doesn't reduce published material into a widely-readable and easily-writeable format like HTML, it had better have a damn good reason for valuing solipsistic correctness over convenience for end-users. RSS is the only example I can think of that might validate Bill's point, and even that is served over HTTP because it's a convenient delivery mechanism.

Anyway, I'll let Stewart Brand have the last word:

Starting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history. It treats previous knowledge as an impediment and imagines that only present knowldge deployed in theoretical purity can make real the wondrous new vision. (The Clock of the Long Now, page 74)

Time for a shower, I feel like I've been trolled. Enjoy this refreshing bit of optimism about the Web from Adam Rifkin.


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