Prepare for the age of the Splinternet

Josh Bernoff


Kai Ryssdal: For all its sales and marketing savvy, for my money Apple kinda blew it today with its new tablet computer. Not so much with the device itself, $499 stripped down, $829 top of the line. But did anybody else think the name was kind of a clunker, though? I mean the iPad? My issues aside, general reaction so far has been pretty positive. But analyst Josh Bernoff at Forrester Research says the iPad, and a lot of the other new products and applications online now, are changing the Internet in some fundamental ways. Josh, it's good to have you with us.

Josh Bernoff: Hi, it's great to be here.

Ryssdal: I can confess I was a little distressed to read your post the other day about the Apple Tablet and the Kindle and all this, basically meaning the golden age of the Internet is over.

BERNOFF: That's right, it's really the Web that is shattering into pieces here. We've had 15 years now where there was a common standard for the kinds of computers that were connecting up to Web sites, and this really made it easy for the people who were delivering content to those folks. But now, between iPhones and Tablets and Kindles, you can't be sure if you build a Web site that everybody will experience it the same way anymore.

Ryssdal: So who is this a bigger problem for? Is it a problem for consumers, or is it a problem for people trying to create the content?

BERNOFF: Well, for consumers this certainly manifests itself when you turn on your iPhone and go to a Web site and it doesn't seem to work quite right. But I think it's more of a problem really for the people who are trying to reach those consumers. Because where they might have built one Web site and had it work on all different browsers and computers, now they have to make decisions: Are we going to make it run on an iPhone, are we going to make it run on a FiOS TV? And if so, you have to change the way you design it for the characteristics of those devices.

Ryssdal: Give us an example of this thing you call the Splinternet. I mean, how does it work in practicality?

BERNOFF: Well, in practicality let's just take Kraft.

Ryssdal: Kraft, you mean as in Kraft Foods.

BERNOFF: That's right, Kraft food has an application called ifood assistance that runs on your iPhone. Of course, if you happen to have a Google Android and you want to get that, well, you're going to have to wait and see if they bring it out on that environment. And this is replicated over and over again. For every company that is trying to reach consumers, they now must decide which platform to head out on, something that just wasn't true five years ago.

Ryssdal: It actually strikes me that it's a little bit like the early days in '93, '94, '95, when you had AOL and CompuServe and all the rest of them, and they didn't really talk to each other.

BERNOFF: That's exactly right. When the Web came along it created this unified environment and you know, you could send an e-mail to anybody, any Web site could be visible from anywhere. And that was all a result of the Web standards that were created at that time. For 15 years since then we've really been in a situation where because it was a unified environment, you had things like Web analytics, you had things like Adobe Flash that ran everywhere and everyone could share.

Ryssdal: Back up for a minute, Web analytics. So the all-important measurement of who is going to which Web site, and then how you can charge for advertising, monetization, I mean the whole deal.

BERNOFF: That's right. I mean if you're an advertiser right now, you can have a banner ad, that same ad can run on a New York Times Web site or Yahoo, and when the traffic comes in from that there's a standardized set of tools you can use to measure whether it was effective, and where the customers came from and why they clicked on things. If you set yourself up with an Apple iPhone application, none of that infrastructure exists, people are trying to build it, but you're going to have to do that, and you'll have to do it separately if you do it on some other device.

Ryssdal: And you as a consumer, you need to choose your appliance carefully.

BERNOFF: That's true. It's been true all along. I mean, ever since Beta versus VHS, we've been in an environment where if you made the wrong choice, you ended up behind. And it's true right now. You're going to be making a bet, and if you make the wrong bet, you might regret it later.

Ryssdal: Josh Bernoff from Forrester Research and the Internet becoming the Splinternet. Josh, thanks a lot.

BERNOFF: Thank you.

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Give Josh some slack here. He brings up an interesting point that has been on my mind that with iPhone/iPad/android etc the web is evolving to address different user interfaces inherent in these new devices. I do see it as splintering of sorts that poses challenges and opportunities for those of us in the web business and benefit to the information consumers including me.

I think all the web programmers are giving Josh an unnecessarily hard time. I think the subtext to his point is quite valid and of great concern from a business perspective: differing web standards, i.e., Safari to Firefox, creates added cost of development. Is it a big deal that Bank of America has to deal with several different phones with different requirements? No. Is it a big deal for Joe Entrepreneur who has to hire a web programmer to build his website? Yes. The cost of accommodating these various standards is easily double what it might have been 5 years ago. Ergo, this puts the small guy, which makes the Internet great, at a large disadvantage. Certainly a Facebook would have great pains in coming into its own if it started today. And, for that, Steve Jobs and the Google execs are kind of inconsiderate.

Only someone who has never actually worked on a website would say this. There have always been different web browsers with different versions of HTML, and users with different sized monitors. Back in the day websites had different versions based on if your browser supported tables or not, and if your screen was 800x600.

I agree with Michael Harrison's comments about the challenges. What I took from this interview was that people are using and interacting with the internet differently now. They aren't waiting for website managers to display content they can use. They are pursuing and interacting with content on many different platforms--text devices, e-readers, smartphones, netbooks. It's not so much a technological splintering, as a diversification of the audience by virtue of expectation and access. And advertising/monetization IS important, whether us old-timers like it or not. And bringing that monetization to this new variety of devices IS a challenge. Text alert ads? Video pre-roll with your e-book download? Standards are being reimagined everyday.

Mr. Bernoff comments, "The diversity of devices is great for creating additional experiences. But it will certainly create challenges people seeking to deliver one set of interactive content in a standard way. Anyone who's looked at a regular site on an iPhone can see that."

I agree that things aren't simple, but as a 15-veteran of web development, I can't say the future scares me. We've been through browser wars, the dot-bomb collapse, proprietary software of all kinds, and yet here we are, with a thriving Internet industry and stronger -- yet more flexible -- standards than ever. Sure, Facebook has its own API, but movements and products like OpenSocial and OAuth will help lower those walls to information. And making a web page spiffy on an iPhone is a matter of adding a few meta tags and a bit of scripting, assuming you built the initial site to standards.

The Open Source movement, once derided as a source for software knockoffs, is now leading the way in stitching the virtual world together with community-developed technologies and standards.

Yes, there are challenges. That keeps things interesting. Meeting the challenges is what people like me do for a living. The future looks pretty golden to me.

When I heard this I went right back to 1995 and thought about all the hoops I had to jump through to get a web site just to work in the different browsers and monitors and computers. Over time technology has weeded out the worst performers and today things are much more easy to design for. However the introduction of new internet appliances has changed the way people are viewing and interacting and hence the way we have to consider designs for these new devices as well as the old fashion web. These new devices will require new technology that will be different than the web. He has a very valid point.

Thanks to all the commenters, let's add a little clarity to what I've described as the Splinternet.

It is true that Web standards like HTML5 are attempting to unify the Web despite all these devices.

It's also true that the devices have far different characteristics from one another, and they are platforms controlled by companies. Apple decides what runs and does not run on the iPad.

For that matter, although Kai didn't ask about it, Facebook decides what happens on its platform, and Google can't see much of it -- it's locked up behind a password.

This means content companies and marketers need to re-engineer their content for each platform. It also means the analytical tools don't work the way site managers have grown used to.

That's the splintering I'm talking about. No amount of love for standards can put that toothpaste back in the tube.

The diversity of devices is great for creating additional experiences. But it will certainly create challenges people seeking to deliver one set of interactive content in a standard way. Anyone who's looked at a regular site on an iPhone can see that.

this guy has got it completely backwards. The web was always intended to be used a variety of devices. In fact, that is EXACTLY what the web was invented for. Before the Web, information was locked up in different machines on different hardware. None of that info could be shared. The web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee to solve that problem. Wow. This guy really could not be more wrong. The web is intended to be platform-independent. There are even aural web browsers for the blind. (um.. flash won't work on that...)

This Bernoff guy is a business analyst. It's obvious to me that he knows very little about technology. He mixes up the web with email and other applications, as if they were all one thing. He could have done some research. Not to mention Marketplace. Do they just give a slot to any Forrester guy with a book?

Summary: It would be so much simpler and cheaper for big companies to make annoying ads if all you pesky people would just only use a giant PC from the 90's with Internet Explorer 4 and Flash to use the web and never ever allow for innovation. You don't need information in your pocket, do ya?

It's hard to believe that this guy is serious. Maybe just seriously misinformed. Flash is not a web standard. Web standards are always changing for the better; evolving. Email is not the web. Apps are not the web.

My long-lost cousin Peter, above, has it right on the mark. I just got done teaching middle school students this same material. sheesh. Maybe they should have a 7th grader come on the show and set the record straight.

I second the previous comments, except... as the ubiquity of graphical based browsers, the web has become exceedingly difficult to navigate with the images turned off. Accessibility is part of the web standards, but has been largely ignored by the website designers. Remember Lynx? I would still be using it if the pages were readable. Up through last year I still had dial-up, and many people still do. Modern bandwidth behemoth websites show no consideration. Us in the Last Mile are left out, or at least sitting and waiting, and waiting... load dammit!

There is the gap between the bandwidth haves and have nots, is that the splinter?

This was one of the worst reports I've ever heard on Marketplace and I think the listeners, many of which are not as knowledgeable as some of us, deserve a corrective report.

Where has this guy been? Hasn't he heard of XML and other standards that allow developers to create web apps that will work on all (well, maybe not IE, the great standard-breaker) web browsers including those on smart phones like the iPhone?

iPhone apps are not web apps any more than Microsoft Word is. To imply that it is was simply stupid.

"Web came along it created this unified environment and you know, you could send an e-mail to anybody..." This has nothing to do with the Web. email uses older protocols (SMTP, IMAP, POP, etc) not HTTP. Where does he get this stuff. My undergraduate students know more than he does BEFORE they take my Intro to IT classes.

"any Web site could be visible from anywhere..." He obviously never had to include hacks to make his web sites work under IE. Just look at any sophisticated web page source and you're likely to find special code to make it work with certain browsers (I won't mention IE again, I promise!)


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