Reining in the Web, Loosing the Local

June 14th, 2010

Over the past two decades of the web, the working mental model we’ve formed to understand it has been a confluence of trend lines running toward infinity: data stored, data transferred, websites, user accounts, dollars spent online, number of articles available, et cetera. Almost every metric has been shooting up steeply, seemingly without limit.

Entire companies are rising up to handle super-specific roles in the the abstraction of an expanding web.  Think of them as single-purpose “objects” (to borrow a programming term of similar meaning).  These objects exist to handle one type of task, billions of times, from thousands (maybe millions) of sources.  Their value to the overall system is in the freedom they give to developers of more-broadly-focused apps to spend time on the things that make their app unique, instead of re-inventing the proverbial wheel every time a developer wants to, for example, make use of geodata.

There are thousands of examples of this across the web, but I’ll give one that’s particularly relevant to this discussion: SimpleGeo.

SimpleGeo’s single professed purpose is to make location-aware programming simpler by providing a top notch, pre-packaged geodata infrastructure (and an application programming interface to go with it).  It’s a result (a conscious move on the part of its founders, but a result nonetheless) of a refactoring of the web.  Resources that exist in a smaller but similar fashion across many applications are, through market forces and programmers’ constant drive for efficiency, reallocated as centralized resources and made available for collective use.

In layman’s terms, this means a programmer doesn’t have to burn time and money developing their own infrastructure for geodata (which would undoubtedly consume more system resources, be less reliable than SimpleGeo’s, and be very similar to every other programmer’s individual effort).  Instead, they can focus on building and refining the higher-level (more specialized) functions of their application while SimpleGeo whirrs on reliably in the background.

Think of SimpleGeo (and other programmer-friendly web services like it) as super-specialized, but highly-efficient nodes in a web awash with aggregators and general-purpose applications… as a coalesced foundation on which a further-abstracted, hyper-efficient, data behemoth of a web is being built.

[and... breathe... *phew*]

At the same time that the web trends toward a sublime infinity (perhaps, even, as a result), real-world interactions have been growing in appeal. I’m thinking, for instance, of the increase of farmers’ markets and desire to know where our food is coming from (i.e. “buy local” movement); of a backlash against malls and chain stores in favor of more locally-authentic mom & pop shops. It seems “users” like to be reminded that they are, in fact, “people”.

Recognizing this, many real-world chain stores are subtly rebranding themselves and their products to reflect a more localized aesthetic. Starbucks has been particularly adept at this, and has even gone so far as to open “undercover” locations, one of which was given the handle “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea“.  It broke with corporate style conventions to appear to be a one-off shop.

(Just by chance, the company that prompted me to write this was also Starbucks, but for a different reason, which I’ll get back to in a second…)

So we have these two trends: the ever-abstracting web and an increasing awareness of the real-world “local”.  How do they co-exist?

One can do an insane number of things on the web, and any one given thing (website, application, et cetera) can be “done” by an unmanageable number of people.  This leads to scaling headaches for programmers, erratic traffic spikes, a host of factors that need to be taken into account to serve either tens or millions, depending on the day.

More publicly, this leads to the free (in most every sense) dissemination of information (articles, music, movies, etc.) across the web, much to the chagrin of content producers accustomed to earning money via the delivery of that content (articles via newspapers, music and movies via discs…).  Scarcity, it seemed, was dead in the digital age.

Which lead some content producers to construct pay walls, metering access to their content and requiring some form of payment (be it dollars or marketing-relevant personal data).  They didn’t require payment because that mode of delivery was costing them (the marginal cost of delivering a web page is super close to $0.00); they required payment because there was no longer a perception of scarcity around that now-digital content, so their delivery-system cash machines were losing customers.

Enter Starbucks (told you I’d get back to them), and their new in-store WiFi initiative (described on the personal blog of one of its leaders here).  As told by Stephen Gillett, the new digital network– accessible only via in-store WiFi –will:

“source the best paid-wall content on the internet but available ad-free and a no-cost to our customers.”

Wow.  Do you see what just happened there?  The Starbucks store just became that source of scarcity for online publishing giants. Their pay wall is down, but only for as many individuals as can be in-store Starbucks patrons at a given time.

The web just used the real world as a filter.  And the real-world just capitalized on the near-zero delivery cost of a near-infinite amount of web content.  The web and location, acting symbiotically on the shared edge of two business models.

In this particular case, it appears that the definition of “location-based, therefore hooked up to the free content pipleline” is provided by the WiFi networks themselves… you have to be connected to the Starbucks network in order to get the goods.

But it’s not hard to imagine, especially with the growing prevalence of location-aware devices and applications (which will only become more numerous thanks to services like SimpleGeo), that location can be defined as specifically or as broadly as suits the situation.

Maybe, for instance, a web-based service with ties to the physical wants to limit use of their web app to a “deliverable region” (think of a web or mobile-device-based ordering app for any non-ubiquitous pizza delivery shop).  That locally-defined business could make use of all the “programmability” of the web (highly efficient, super fast, replicable, leaves a data trail, instantly verifiable), while simultaneously designing experiences with the knowledge that the user (we’re talking web again) is located within a defined region.

What’s happening, in essence, is a reining-in of the web (re-introducing limits and scarcity) as the local is given more leash (processing power, access to the digital domain).

I can’t even fully grasp the near-time implications of this, but I’m certain these functions will begin to reveal themselves over the next few years, much as a web/location game like Foursquare– which was hard to conceive of even 5 years ago –has risen and thrived in the past few months.

The question that remains is not “Will companies thrive in this developing digital/local sweet spot?”, but “Doing what?”

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