By Barry Adams.
The web as part of the internet has been around now for 25 years. The web as we know it is websites serving webpages to end users through browsers. Where is the web headed now that connectivity is ubiquitous and most of the internet is about machines talking to other machines? With users moving in to app ecosystems and digital assistants, and web activity concentrating around the big four - Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple - where does that leave websites as we know and love them?
The Industrial Internet – also known as the Internet of Things – has been on the cards for a while. Now in recent years we’re finally seeing it take shape, as technology matures and interconnectivity becomes cheap and ubiquitous. This industrial internet will be mostly invisible to us humans – it’ll primarily be machines talking to other machines in the background, exchanging information to facilitate all kids of industrial and economic processes that help make our lives easier.
Where does this industrial internet, where almost every conceivable piece of technology will be internet-enabled and transmitting its data to relevant platforms, leave the grandfather of internet technologies: the World Wide Web?
For many years people have more or less equated the web with the internet. In our collective conscious they more or less mean the same thing, despite the fact that the web has always been just one of the many technologies that make use of the fundamental underlying network that is the internet. Other technologies, some of which are at least as popular as the web – such as email, FTP, IRC, and many more – also make use of the internet but never quite managed to establish themselves as synonymous with the internet.
Perhaps this is because the web has been a truly transformative technology, impacting on so many different aspects of our daily lives that we can scarcely conceive of a world without it.
The Industrial Internet of Things will have an equally transformative effect on our society. And the web might be one of the IIoT’s casualties along the way.
In the Internet of Things, devices and software talk amongst themselves, sharing information, only making themselves known to people when it’s necessary to do so – in the form of a weather warning, a reminder for a rescheduled meeting, a notification to pick up milk at the supermarket, or whatever it may be. Increasingly, our devices and apps pull data from various sources to learn all about us, so that they may better serve us and pro-actively manage the daily grind of our lives.
It’s this collecting and sharing of data that may make the web obsolete. For many years, the world wide web was the primary, if not the only, source of information on the internet. Every website is a data source, providing information about businesses and people to anyone who wants it. Want to know who was king of Spain in the 16th century? The web will tell you. Where can you get those shoes the cheapest? Let’s Google it. When does that new movie come out? It’ll be on the web somewhere.
Now, fewer and fewer of such queries rely on the web for fulfilment. Voice-based search provides us with answers without us ever having to open a web browser. All the examples above can now be fulfilled by simply talking to Siri or Cortana or Google. We never need to actively go out there and find information – the devices and software that we carry with us everywhere will do that for us, as and when required.
This expands beyond just active search queries. Our devices don’t need us to trigger search queries any more. For example, you may have a calendar reminder to bring your mother to the airport. Your device knows about this reminder – after all, it has access to your calendar – and will gather information about it; what flight, which airport, estimated time of departure, etc. Then, when the flight is delayed, your device will let you know and tell you to wait before you head to the airport. You don’t need to ask your device to do this – it does this all on its own, and will pro-actively notify you of relevant changes when it’s prudent.
Sounds like science fiction? This is already happening. Android devices using Google Now will provide you with precisely this kind of reminder:
The use cases of this type of pro-active notification are almost limitless. Have an appointment with friends to go for a round of golf? When the weather turns and threatens to spoil your day, your device might propose to book a session of indoor laser quest instead. Achieved a new record step count on your Fitbit? Your device will offer you a reward in the form of a discount voucher for a protein shake in a nearby health bar. Need to get to a meeting at an unknown address? Your device has already planned the route, including a short stop at your favourite coffee shop chain for a quick cuppa.
Aside from the obvious commercial opportunities for businesses, this sort of automated life enhancement has other repercussions. In the past, we are used to opening a browser and searching for things like a laser quest session or a health bar. The new internet of things will make such manual searching obsolete. Instead, the software algorithms behind the scenes will do all the thinking for us, learning what we like and don’t like, and providing us with exactly those options we most enjoy.
The end result is that the web – all those websites out there that provide this information to these systems – will be surplus to requirement. Mostly. These automated systems still need the information that businesses currently provide on their websites. Business opening hours, ticket availability, discount vouchers, etc. All these things are currently available on the web, and our digital assistants will be unable to make our lives easier if they do not have access to this information.
Where this leaves the web is clear: it will change from a primarily human-facing platform to one where we provide relevant information to machines. Increasingly, our websites will not be meant for human consumption, but serve as data providers to automated platforms.
That means we will need to make our content machine-readable. If we want our website information to be used by these pro-active digital assistants, to provide answers and options for users who might have a requirement for what we offer, we need to make sure the software that drives these assistants can make use of our data.
Using technologies such as Structured Data markup, Accelerated Mobile Pages, XML feeds, and Firebase, we can ensure that our web content is fully accessible and usable for the automated platforms that make up the Internet of Things. The front-end aesthetics of websites will become less important, as the primary users of our websites will no longer have human eyes. Instead, our websites will become data sources for the Internet of Things, where we provide machine-readable information for other platforms to use and re-use as they see fit.
The Industrial Internet of Things won’t destroy the web, but it will be transformed beyond recognition.