You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember — all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.
In the Matrix, Morpheus presents Neo with a choice: he can take the blue pill and continue his somnambulatory existence within the Matrix, or he can take the red pill and become free from the virtual reality that the machines created to enslave humanity.
Everyday, when you fire up your browser and type in some arbitrary URL in the browser’s address bar, you are taking the red pill.
Increasingly though, I see signs that the essential freedoms of the web are being undermined by a cadre of companies through the introduction of new technologies and interfaces that, combined, may spell the death of the URL.
Call me crazy, but it seems obvious enough when you put on the right colored paranoia goggles.
Exhibit A: Web TV
There’s an article in Friday’s USA Today suggesting that we’re finally at a point where web TV has a chance. But there’s an insidious underbelly to this story. Specifically:
Consumers may balk if TV sets become too computerlike and complicated.
From the article:
Manufacturers say they learned an important lesson from earlier convergence failures: Viewers want to relate to sets as televisions, not computers.
That’s why the new Web TV models don’t come with browsers that would give people the freedom to surf the full Internet, even though the TVs connect to the Web via an ethernet cable or home wireless network. The companies want to promote consumer acceptance of Web TV by making the technology simple to use: That means no keyboard or mouse.
It’s just Step 1: Engineers are talking about changes that would make it easy to navigate the Internet. One thought is to program smartphones so they can change channels, send text messages to the set and move a cursor around the screen with the motion-sensitive technology that Nintendo uses with its Wii game system.
For now, though, people just need the TV remote control to select and launch prepackaged applications.
In a twist of McLuhanesque determinism, it would appear that the apparatus and determinism of the television experience will overrule the freedom and flexibility of the web — because, well, frankly — all that choice…! It’s so… unseemly and unmonetizable.
Instead, Web TV will be made easier to use by removing the best parts of the web and augmenting the straightjacket features of the television.
Exhibit B: Litl, ChromeOS, JoliCloud, and Apple Tablet
The thing is cool, I admit. The netbook/webbook market needs some design thinking. And heck, I’m as eager as anyone to see what Apple is going to do in this space, so I’m watching it closely… but something tells me that the next generation “PC” devices are going to revolve around slicker, streamlined interfaces that come pre-packaged with fewer choices drawn from a set of likely suspects (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo et al.).
Taking a look at the JoliCloud homescreen… you can start to see how this will be the next Firefox search box in terms of monetization:
Though I imagine you’ll be able to set custom options here, it’s the defaults that matter.
…and these homescreens become yet another funnel to drive users to a predetermined (and paid for) set of options.
Exhibit C: Top Sites
Similar to the netbook homescreens, both Safari and Chrome provide home pages that show you thumbnails of the sites that you visit most often (coincidence? I think not!).
Seems an innocuous feature. I mean, isn’t it easier to just click a picture of where you want to go rather than typing in some awkward string that starts with HTTP into the address bar?
AH HA! So, you’d take the blue pill eh?
See the problem?
Just as browsers currently come with a set of default bookmarks today, there’s no reason why the next generation browsers won’t come with their own predefined set of “Top Sites”, that, not unlikely, will come from the same list of predetermined companies that populate the home screens of the next gen Net/Web Books.
The more that the browser address bar can be made obsolete, the more it becomes just like TV, right?
Exhibit D: Warning interstitials and short URL frames
If you use Facebook, you’ve probably seen the above warning before — usually after clicking a link that a friend sent you. Now, I recognize why they do this. It’s true: on the internet, thar be dragons!
Now, nevermind the dragons on Facebook proper — this innocuous little screen was designed, one assumes, to keep you safe from things outside the Facebook universe. However, the net effect of seeing this page every time you click an outbound link is fatigue. You get worn down by having to click through this page until finally, after a while, you just give up and stop clicking links from your friends altogether. It just could be that a momentary delay like this is enough to change your behavior completely.
Even when you do decide to leave, Facebook comes with you — inserting 45 pixels of itself into your experience as a top frame:
This make it easier to get back to Facebook, and never skip a beat. But it also removes the need to visit the address bar and think about where you want to go next (let alone type it out). Of course Facebook isn’t the only service doing this — Digg and countless other short URL generators intrude on your web experience and put yet more distance between you and the address bar.
All these little hindrances add up — and if you’ve done any usability work — you know that the smallest changes can lead to huge impacts over time if the changes are so slight as to be essentially unnoticeable.
Exhibit E: The NASCAR
Now, this one hits close to home, y’know, since this is what I’ve been working on for the past year or so… but the reality is that more and more, companies are moving to accept this logo-splattered approach to user sign in forms — “the NASCAR” — which dispatches the uncomfortable “URL-based” metaphor of OpenID altogether.
Now, we’ve made progress moving forward with “email-style identifiers” for use in OpenID transactions, but we’re not there yet, and we’re not moving fast enough either.
The specter of the Facebook Connect button is ever-present, and, from a UI perspective, it’s hard to argue with one button to rule them all (even if it destroys individual autonomy in the process — hey! freedom is messy! Let’s scrap it!).
The NASCAR, then, is just one more way to put off teaching users to recognize that URLs can represent people too, chaining us to the silos and locking us into brand-mediated identities for yet another generation.
Exhibit F: App Stores
Finally, there’s been plenty written about this already, but what is the App Store except a cleaved out and sanitized portion of the web? In fact, people accustomed to the freedom and “flow” of the web go into anaphylactic shock when they realize that they must submit to the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of Steve Jobs when they want their iPhone app to show up in the Apple app store.
And it’s only going to get worse, because now everyone wants a goddamn app store.
Thanks a lot, Steve.
The rise of the “app store mentality” is a direct attack on the web, and on the very nature of free discovery and choice built upon URL-based hyperlinks. By depriving us the ability to pick and choose which “stores” we shop from on these devices — we’re empowering a new breed of middle men and ceding to them monopoly control over our digital experience. The architecture of the web was intended to withstand such threats — but that all changes when the hardware makers get into the content business! Even though developers are beginning to see the dark side of this faustian bargain, the momentum is huge — and big business smells money.
By removing our ability to navigate, choose, and share freely — these app stores are exchanging our freedom for a promise that they’ll keep us safe, give us everything we need, and do all the choosing of what’s “good enough” for us — all starting at ninety-nine cents a hit.
No doubt this model will be emulated and copied — across all platforms — until the last vestige of the URL is patched over and removed… the last reminder of an uncomfortable and much messier era of history.
I don’t know about you, but a future without URLs and without the infinite organicity of the web frightens me. It’s not that I know what we’ll lose by removing this artifact of one of the most generative periods in history — and that’s exactly the point! The URL and the ability for anyone to mint a new one and then propagate it is what makes the web so resilient, so empowering, and so interesting! That I don’t need to ask anyone permission to create a new website or webpage is a kind of ideological freedom that few generations in history have known!
Now, granted, there is still much work to be done to spread the power and privilege of the web, but what I don’t want to see happen in the meantime is the next generation of kids grow up with an “easier” laptop, Web Top, Net Book, Nook, or whatever the hell they’re going to call it — that lacks an address bar. I don’t want the next generation to grow up with TV-stupid controls and a set of predefined widgets that determine the totality and richness of their experience on a mere subset of the web! That future cannot be permitted!
Maybe I’m wrong or just paranoid, and maybe the web has won, forever. But I’m not willing to rest on my laurels. No way.
We all know that the internet has won as the transport medium for all data — but the universal interface for interacting with the web? — well, that battle is just now getting underway.
As a user experience designer, it’s on my discipline and peers to provide the right kind of ideas and leadership. If we get the design right, we can empower while clarifying; we can reduce complexity while enhancing functionality; we can expand freedom while not overwhelming with choice. Surely these are the things that good, thoughtful user experience design can achieve!
Well, friends, I’ve said my piece. Whether this threat is real or imagined, it’s one that I believe bears inspection.
Like Neo, if I were forced to choose between all the messiness of free will over the “comfortability” of a contrived existence, I’d choose the red pill, time and time again. And I hope you would too.