The Web Reaches Adolescence: Our Last Opportunity to Influence Its Growth
Miller, Tim, Information Today
[Editor's Note: Information Today congratulates Tim Miller for winning the UMI Excellence in Writing award for his article "Inside the Tornado: The Information Industry in 1995," which appeared in our December 1995 issue. This month, Miller once again shares his assessment of the current year's developments and how they impact those of us who work in the information industry.]
The World Wide Web reached its adolescence this year. Its latest growth spurt has left it awkward and blemished as an information delivery medium. We see glimpses of greatness-an impressive bone structure, flashes of brilliance, and, occasionally from out of the blue, actual answers to our questions. But most of the time the Web is gangly, uncouth, and downright annoying as it overloads us with irrelevant, poorly conceived, and low-quality information.
We in the information industry have been absentee parents during the childhood of the Web. We have stood by, stunned and sometimes threatened, as most of the major advances flashed by without even our token participation. We have lashed out with criticism of the Web, reluctant to accept the fact that, even with all the blemishes of its pubescence, the Web is close to being the Holy Grail that we have sought for decades. It is the vast market that vendors and distributors crave. It is the critical mass of specialized users that publishers and producers have desired. It is the empowerment of the end user with easily used, ubiquitous interfaces that information specialists have claimed to have wanted for the past several decades. And yet it still awaits our input.
The coming months may present the last and greatest moment for information professionals to bring their considerable resources to bear to help shape what is by far the single most significant phenomenon in the short history of online information. With most of its technological framework in place, the Web's focus is finally shifting from its plumbing to its content and to how that content can best be delivered to solve people's problems. Here is where we can shine.
Great Strides Have Been Made
To put the Web's adolescence in perspective, let's review the two major stages in its development to date. In the span of less than three years, two major bursts of investment created the framework of a whole new delivery medium. The early formative months in 1994 and early 1995 quickly built an infrastructure that allows users to gain access to the network and to navigate it with simple, intuitive browsing software that operates across all computing platforms. The 18 months or so that followed have produced the basic building blocks of the Web, the tools that allow producers to create truly compelling content for the Web. These tools include the servers, content-development software, information-retrieval engines, transaction systems, programming languages, and other products that allow communications, information retrieval, software interaction, purchase transactions, and other forms of content.
In 1996, with the Web's skeleton in place and its major organs working, the focus of developers and users began to shift to content. This year brought huge investments in content creation from such players as C/net, HotWired, and MSNBC. We also saw some of the first Web content acquisitions, kicked off early in the year by Intuit Inc., the publisher of financial-management software, which purchased Galt Technologies Inc. for that company's fledgling Web-based mutual fund information service. 1996 brought the flowering of directory and search services such as Yahoo!, Excite, infoSeek, Altavista, and others that are trying to bring more organization to the millions of pages that comprise the Web.
This year also revolutionized the world of what we used to call clipping services or, somewhat more stodgily, selective dissemination of information (SDI). Recognizing that some 15 million corporate users are in nearly constant connection to the Web via their LANs, innovators created a comucopia of new techniques for "pushing" information to users on an individualized basis. …