Matt's Grand Ideas

We’re repeating that mistake?

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Today Apple is supposed to make a big announcement. I don’t know yet what that will be but many people think it’s related to a Tablet PC. Apple’s success in the iPhone and App Store business has reminded me of one of the web’s biggest mistakes and we seem on track to repeat it. I’m stunned because it really hasn’t been that long. How can we be doing it again so soon?

Back in the late 90’s the web was young and everyone saw potential but everyone was frustrated because it was hard to do the stuff we really wanted to do. Then Microsoft revolutionized things with the release of Internet Explorer 4 (IE4). It shipped a little before Windows 98 and when added to later releases of Windows 95 it changed the desktop in many good ways. You were foolish not to install it just because of what it brought to the desktop.

But what it brought to the web was even greater. We were doing things we’d only dreamed of before. At first we built our sites with IE4 and Netscape 4 in mind (it was a big improvement over the 3.0 browsers before it) but it quickly became clear that these browsers were in two different leagues and IE was going to be the champ.

Many many organizations and websites dropped support for non IE browsers. It became hard to navigate the web w/out IE. It helped Microsoft resoundingly take over the desktop because you commonly needed IE to view critical websites.

This was the third biggest mistake we’ve made with the Internet and we’re still paying for it. Really. There are extensions for all browsers that let them trick websites into thinking they’re IE so that they can get past the dreaded, “you must be using IE to view this site” error. Sometimes it works but sometimes the only option is to just fire up IE.

And we’re doing it again. The next big thing, the thing that will change the web for ever, is the emergence of Mobile. A few years ago, for the first time, Laptops outsold desktop PCs in retail. It was a big deal because people’s primary computer was not a desktop but a laptop. And soon it will be an even smaller device like a mobile smart phone. I’m confident that soon web enabled mobiles (real web, not WAP) will outsell PCs.

Apple was the vendor to get people really excited about the mobile web, and rightly so. The iPhone is inspiring. Apple started out telling people to design mobile websites but then did a full turn. They opened up an API for native software development and encouraged people to use it rather than web apps. And the encouragement was easy money – build apps, sell them and make a ton of money. We liked the idea. We took the bait, hook, line and sinker. We even swallowed the bobber and asked the fisherman to give more.

How short-sighted though. The Mobile web is too big to be owned by one vendor. We’re repeating the IE 4 mistake all over and instead of groaning in despair we’re grinning and gleeful, asking for more vendor lock in.

We have to stop. Run away from native apps, back to the safety of standards compliance. Back to the world where everyone, regardless of the platform, can access and use your app. Don’t wait!

Web guy, big thinker, loves to talk, teach and write. I make technology easier to use @ John Deere ISG.

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