WWW FAQs: What will the Web be like in the future?

2006-06-01: If I knew for sure, I'd be out there building it! However, here's a sampling of what I see coming up, in no particular order:

1. Better interactive applications. Web-based applications will get faster, friendlier, and more visually impressive, bcoming able to do things we normally associate with software that comes on a CD. gmail and Google Maps are good examples of how AJAX programming makes websites more interactive, without forcing the user to wait every time they click a button.

2. Better vector graphics. Although Flash is extremely well-established, Microsoft's Sparkle will challenge Adobe/Macromedia's dominance with superior 3D effects for web pages. However, Sparkle works only with Windows Vista, and Flash works everywhere: Mac, Linux, and old and new Windows computers. SVG, an open standard supported by the W3C industry organization, is also a player here but acceptance of SVG as a Flash alternative has been slow. That may be partly due to its sheer complexity - it's true that Internet Explorer doesn't support it, but even Firefox is still "a long way away" from full SVG support.

In response to the complexity of SVG, the latest versions of both Apple's Safari and the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox support Canvas, a simple way of adding 2D graphics support to JavaScript-enabled web pages. Even though Internet Explorer doesn't support it, the inviting simplicity of Canvas may make it popular with web developers - and if Canvas-only web pages become common, that will drive users to Firefox and Safari... leading Microsoft to do the sensible thing and add Canvas support to Internet Explorer.

3. Open standards for cross-platform video. Unfortunately, right now, Adobe's Flash video format is the only high-quality, low-bandwidth video format that works well across most browsers and operating systems. Since the tools to create Flash video aren't free, there's an opportunity for an open-source solution of similar quality to break in... if users can be convinced to install the player software. Theora is a possible candidate here.

4. Open standards for cross-platform audio. While MP3 is a mostly adequate audio format, it's not really free: Fraunhofer AG charges license fees for the use of MP3-creation software. Ogg Vorbis is a truly open alternative, and some feel it offers superior quality. Again, the big catch is convincing users to install it.

5. Open standards for audio and video control. There are many different players for audio and video, leading to a tangle of different scripting approaches that make it almost impossible for a web designer to offer anything but "play," "pause" and "stop" buttons. Everything else is proprietary or not available to JavaScript at all. Right now, the only way to design an embedded audio player that fits harmoniously into your page design is to design your player in Flash - another closed standard. The time is ripe for a standard set of JavaScript methods, or "verbs," that interact with embedded audio and video players. To "play," "pause" and "stop," we must add "getcurrenttime," "gettotallength," and "setcurrenttime" at a bare minimum. Until that happens, web designers will continue to desert JavaScript in favor of designing media-rich pages in Flash.

6. The "semantic web." Many hope that XML will lead to a Web where websites can describe their own contents in a way that other programs - not just people - can understand. This leads to useful tools that combine information from many sites. For example....

7. Web service "mash-ups." Many major websites, such as Amazon and Google, now provide ways to fetch data and use it as part of another site. Amazon, for instance, lets you fetch information about books and use it as part of your own dynamic site design, presumably because it all leads to improved sales. And Google allows both web searches and map displays to be integrated into your own site - under certain terms and conditions. These features are leading to intriguing new applications of the web.

8. XML: important, but not everything. XML is a full-service, overwhelmingly complete way to describe things. But despite the "X" in AJAX, many AJAX applications don't actually rely on XML, because simpler ways of formatting data sent between web browsers and web servers work just fine for many applications. XML will shine primarily as a way of standardizing information that one website can request from another.

9. Blogging and RSS. Virtually all sites will offer the ability to subscribe to an RSS feed of what's new and interesting on the site. Reading a collected "newspaper" of what's new on your favorite feeds will replace manually visiting websites every morning... and for many people, it already has.

10. High-quality free content, supported by advertising. Google Adsense and Kontera have made it possible to derive a profit from almost any popular website - as long as the website's audience is reading about something that might have a connection to a legitimate product or service.

11. Great stuff from the WHATWG. WHATWG (the Web Hypertext Application Technology working group) is finalizing proposals to improve all web browsers in many ways. Their proposals include Web Forms 2.0, which enhances support for data entry in web pages, Web Applications 1.0, which covers more advanced features such as rich text editing and Canvas 2D graphics, and Web Controls 1.0, which will make it easier to create custom controls in web pages, such as calendars, color selectors, and so on. While Opera and Mozilla/Firefox appear to be the most active participants, the WHATWG had the wisdom to adopt the Canvas feature from Apple's Safari browser as part of Web Applications 1.0, and it is hoped that Microsoft will also participate.

Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later

That's just a taste of what may coming on the web. Of course, crystal balls don't always work! Think I missed something major? Let me know.

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