New Forms of Internet and Media Experience

Yesterday, Amazon announced its much anticipated Android-tablet / next-generation-ebook-reader. Nick Carr raised an interesting issue on his blog:

…we are seeing the e-book begin to assume its true aesthetic, which would seem to be far closer to the aesthetic of the web than to that of the printed page: text embedded in a welter of functions and features, a symphony of intrusive beeps.

Yet the “aesthetic of the web” is also changing. Granted, most websites today still have their 1990’s blizzard-of-content-festooned-with-links aesthetic, but mobile apps are starting to have a real impact. Even amazon.com, one of the more stuck-in-the-’90s of successful websites, is making mobile-influenced changes.

With features such as full-screen browser mode in Apple’s OSX Lion, and Microsoft’s Windows-8 in the future, web pages, and web apps, can now take on the immersive aesthetic characteristic of a mobile or tablet app – or indeed of a physical book – with distractions excluded.

For instance, here is an example from a traditional website, a tool bar from skype.com. With its large buttons and simplified graphics it could have come straight from an iPad app:

Relatedly, there are real signs that HTML5 web apps now provide a level of user-experience fluency as good as mobile native apps. The Financial Times replaced its native iPad app with a web-app – and the web-app is just as good. Amazon’s web-app is essentially as good as the native Kindle reading app on iPad, delivering a powerful example of a “modal” immersive media experience. And so on.

Certainly, developing mobile apps remains much harder than, for instance, developing for the iPad. But this is something that can be solved over time, with startups providing development kits and environments, or the growth of open-source community efforts, or development support from platform providers.

Web apps carry with them all the promises of the web – freedom to innovate; infinite cross-reference-ability; mashup solutions that combine different data sources; ability to share ideas and material immediately and freely; and so on. I think we can see now that, in terms of technology platform, web technologies will eventually overwhelm proprietary app development for most applications.

The direction of user experiences is less clear, however. FaceBook, in particular, has succeeded in capturing a huge user base and making them experience a great deal of the web, and media, and even life in general, through the prism of the FaceBook page. Analogously to the way some media-consumption experiences might keep a central focus on one piece of content while providing related and interlinked material, FaceBook is now a different kind of aggregation and cross-referencing system to the traditional web, centered on your social network and people you’re interested in, displacing the traditional unfocussed “web” of HTML links.

Just as experiences like reading and watching a movie call for immersion and distraction-exclusion, we see that web browsing is evolving to provide immersion. Yet at the same time the web wants to keep desired “distractions” just a click or a swipe away – where desired distractions might be Wikipedia information about the media you’re experiencing, finding the dictionary definition of an unfamiliar word, looking at your friends’ opinions about a TV series, sharing your own ideas, or taking a break from immersion to check news or messages.

So it’s not (simply) that ebooks are becoming more like the web. There are multiple evolutions going on simultaneously, with mobile apps shifting to web-technology foundations, and web experiences developing the immersive distraction-excluding characteristics of books but with a wealth of context and interaction always kept close by.

The opportunities for startups? The web-technology platforms, and (even more so) the development of applications that find the right user-experience aesthetic are both wide open today.

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