geert on Wed, 5 Jan 2005 17:19:18 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Bill Thompson: Dump the World Wide Web

From: Open Democracy (via

Happy Christmas! (and, by the way: Dump the World Wide Web!)

As 2004 ends presents a gloriously radical assault 
on the web's lost decade. Bill Thompson argues that the black hole of 
online publishing needs a fresh start, a new model, a revolution that will 
free the networked world from its absurd web prison.

Dump the World Wide Web!
By Bill Thompson


Bill Thompson studied computer science, built his first site in 1994, 
attended the first international web conference later that year with Tim 
Berners-Lee, created the Guardian's first website and has worked with 
openDemocracy since its first version. But he has a deep, dark secret. He 
thinks the web sucks. Not just individual sites, but the whole web 
edifice. He explains why he wants to cure the addiction to HTML and do 
online publishing properly.


The World Wide Web is dead. Like a cartoon character running off a cliff 
but making it some way out into space before awareness brings gravity back 
into operation, it may continue to dominate our online lives a little 
longer, but its day is over.

Soon the whole clumsy, inadequate edifice will come crashing to the 
cyberspatial equivalent of the ground and we will look back upon the crazy 
decade from 1994 to 2004 for what it was -- a dead-end in the development 
of the networked world.

The reasons are simple: the web, like many a political refugee, lacks a 
state. What's worse, it doesn't speak a language that will let it 
express anything more than basic requests for food, shelter or yet another 
poorly-resized JPEG image. Like all analogies this one breaks down pretty 
quickly if you scratch it too hard, but it's worth keeping in mind 
during the (necessarily) more technical explanation you're abou= t to 

It is important to understand how the web works. The web, like email, uses 
a "client-server" model. The client, in this case your browser, 
requests something -- a web page -- from a server. When a request is 
received, and assuming the parts are all there and the client has 
permission to take them, they are sent over the network by the server. 
It's then up to the client to deal with them appropriately. In the case 
of a web page the elements will usually be a document written using HTML, 
the hypertext markup language, some image files and maybe extra bits and 
pieces. It is all very simple, and it's made even simpler because the 
browser and the server communicate using a language of their very own 
called the Hypertext Transport Protocol, or HTTP.

The browser takes what it is given and displays it on your screen, laid 
out as prettily as it can manage. However once we want to do anything more 
complicated than display a page of text and graphics on a screen we 
rapidly discover that both HTML and HTTP are simply not up to the job.

The problems with HTML are serious but understandable. 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.

But in 1993 two graduate students at a United States university decided 
they could improve on Tim's work by writing a new browser which would 
display images too. In order to make this work they had to change HTML by 
adding the < IMG > tag -- and they started a process of non-standard 
extensions which continues to this day.

The result is the mess we see today, where despite the best efforts of the 
standards bodies it is still necessary to write dozens of lines of code at 
the start of a web page in order to figure out which browser is in use, so 
that the =93correct=94 version of the page can be sent over.

Present at the creation

It's an appalling mess, but it wasn't directly Tim's fault. However= 
the same cannot be said for HTTP, the protocol which allows browsers to 
ask for pages and servers to send them across the network. Here Tim's 
desir= e for simplicity has led directly to our current problems, because 
he decided that the server should treat each request for a page from a 
browser as a separate transaction. The decision to make HTTP a 
=93stateless=94 protocol has caused immense trouble. It's rather like b= 
eing served by a waiter with short-term memory loss: you can only order 
one course at a time because he will have forgotten your name, never mind 
your dessert order, by the time you've had your first spoonful of 

Unfortunately many of the things that we want the web to do for us, from 
online shopping to having a newspaper that tailors its pages to our 
interests, rely on some degree of long-term interaction between client and 
server. Cookies, small data files that are placed on a client computer by 
the server, provide a partial solution, rather like the tattoos sported by 
Guy Pearce in the film Memento, but they are inelegant, complicated and 
far from reliable. As, indeed, the tattoos turn out to be.

We have spent the last decade fighting against the limitations of the web 
standards, extending, breaking, reinventing and compromising with them to 
the point where you can just about do online shopping, make pages look 
reasonably attractive and even offer personalised services.

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. 
It's called =93distributed processing=94 and it enables programs to tal= 
k to each other in a far richer, more complex and more useful way than the 
web's standards could ever support.

Had it not been for the rush to embrace the web's page-based publishing 
model, choosing the simple solution over the right one, we would have 
proper distributed systems available today. Instead we have to invent 
technologies which preserve the web approach while making it slightly more 
usable, like the eXtensible Markup Language, or XML. Any tool that is too 
embarrassed even to use the first letter of its full name for an 
abbreviation is surely in trouble from the start.

Unusually for a company which is credited with following trends rather 
than creating them, Microsoft saw this first. They 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.

At the time their programmers were just beginning to explore the 
possibility of direct programme-to-programme communication and 
network-based collaboration between applications. Without the distraction 
of the web we may well have had widespread distributed online services 
five or even more years ago.

These services would not rely on the Web browser as the single way of 
getting information from an online service, but would allow a wide range 
of different programs to work together over the network. We already accept 
that email, chat and even music sharing do not have to be Web-based, but 
we can go much further.

A news site could deliver text, images, audio and even video through a 
program designed for the purpose, instead of having to use a 
general-purpose browser, or a shopping site could build its own shopping 
cart and checkout that did nor rely on Web protocols. And we would have no 
need for Google, because information services would advertise their 
contents instead of having to be searched by inefficient =91spiders'.

The web may have served a purpose once, giving net users something 
relatively simple to look at and use and convincing the world that being 
online was a good thing, but it has done so at great cost to the 
network's architecture and has diverted research into usable, scalable 
and functional distributed systems for the last decade.

There is a deep need among the users for something better than the shoddy, 
half-baked hypertext publishing model that we geeks foolishly embraced 
back in the early 1990s. If we do not start delivering it the net itself 
will stumble, fail and eventually die away, trapped in this stateless web 
of deceit.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: