How to Fix the Web

The online world isn't always user-friendly.
But it easily could be.

"Please say who you are, what you do, and how the Web is screwed up." How's that for an icebreaker? That was the way Kevin Lynch, Adobe's CTO, grabbed his audience at the company's annual developers event this year, throwing open a discussion about what we don't like about the Web and what we'd like to see fixed.

My biggest problem with the Web? For all the cool things we can do, Internet breakthroughs don't play well together -- or even talk to one another. Ironic, no? The Internet, which is shorthand for "interconnected network" and is one of the most significant achievements in the history of communication, is often broken because applications don't interact. We spend all our time hopping from one island of information to another, repeating the same tasks, costing ourselves and our businesses time and money. The good news is that, even as I complain, there are efforts under way to make things better.

Think about passwords -- for your bank and your blog, Facebook and photo sharing, and on and on. We all know they are a pain to keep track of. Microsoft tried to fix this problem years ago -- remember Passport? (shudder) -- but people freaked because it was big, bad Bill Gates trying to take your Web data.

What's going to save us from user name and password fatigue? OpenID. An open-source technology that gives users a portable, secure account, OpenID is accepted so far by almost 10,000 sites, and a grassroots effort has bubbled up such that Google and, yes, Microsoft are among its supporters. Site operators who add OpenID will save users frustration -- and save themselves money, because they won't lose customers for no good reason.

Let's go beyond passwords. Imagine having to create basic information -- such as your contact particulars, calendar items, and so forth -- only once, and then reusing these bits as needed around the Web. That's the formatting promise behind the so-called semantic Web. It's great to see this initiative being embraced by the likes of Amazon and Yahoo!. But it's hardly ubiquitous -- yet.

None of that will cure my headache with the Web 2.0 community. If you use more than one social tool and want to change some universal bit of personal data, you have to update over and over at each service. Want to change your email address or photo and then notify your friends about the update? Put on a pot of coffee and set aside an afternoon.

I get why fierce rivals like MySpace and Facebook don't want to cooperate. But a number of the social tools Yahoo has under its own umbrella -- Flickr's photo sharing, Upcoming's events calendar, Del.icio.us's bookmarks, Bix's contests -- don't even communicate with one another.

Thankfully, the folks over at DataPortability.org are working with social-networking outfits to get them to adopt the existing technologies that will let users share data between sites. But it's not going to be easy. I got into a bit of trouble with Facebook not too long ago when I experimented with an unreleased tool from Plaxo, a popular online address book and calendar. The app pulled names, email addresses, and birthdays from the profiles of my Facebook friends to see if they're also Plaxo members. Facebook kicked me off (but later reactivated my account).

That kind of nonsense is wearying and expensive. The Internet has already exploded many notions about business. It's time that we stop hoarding customers and their information in silos for fear of them straying. If you love them, set them free.

Robert Scoble is the managing director of FastCompany.TV.

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10 Comments

  • Michael Daehn

    The Flock browser is an attempt to aggregate content and fill in passwords. It's pretty cool, but misses the mark in some areas. It's a step in the right direction.

  • Desmond Haynes

    Data portability is happening. open IDs, open social, is happening. Things are changing. We will get there. We have come to the point where people are talking of interoperability of internet apps (for ages we have been fighting that inside enterprises, can't we learn?). When Facebook was defining FBML, probably Mark Z didnt even dream that people will care abt it. But such is life.

    we will get there.
    -Des
    http://techwatch.reviewk.com/

  • Dave Evans

    The issues touched on above -- in particular the task of managing profiles and friend's lists/connections across social sites is partly the objective of Minggl, the toolbar app you featured today (http://qik.com/video/66700) in Qik.com. (Disclosure: I am associated with Minggl.)

  • tk wong

    can't agree more. the web needs to become people centric and not net centric. its got to work for people. check out www.whois.com - helps u manage all your online presences and remembers your fav sites, passwd and ids. Sync with all your multiple computers. Its also FREE.

  • Birgit Pauli-Haack

    Oh, my Firefox on my office computer has this password vault, and saves me multiple times a day from using the "forgot password" feature. OpenID is certainly it and I am so glad that a lot of applications are opening up to it, not only the mainstream social networks but I also use a lot of productivity tools on the web, like the applications of 37signals (Basecamp, Highrise ) or GoToMeeting and GoToMyPc. Because the password vault from one computer is not transferable and I hardly function on any other computer, for instance my laptop.
    Thank you for giving me hope and solace by writing about it. A really education for a lot of people. Yes let's fix the Web!

  • Aaron Cheung

    Robert,

    Thank you for your bold try with the Plaxo app on Facebook(!!), essentially resulting in raising people's awareness and attention to the dataportability project -- you deserve the uber-credit ;-)

    And you're absolutely right that the online world needs better tools for some fix, particularly the social part of the web, or what Marc Canter was referring to as the people's mesh in 2003, or equivalently as what Ray Ozzie was referring to as the social mesh in his last month's MIX08 speech as we all know by now, in addition Ray's mention of the device mesh goodies.

    And, as you're pointing out, and Marc was also of the same thought via his blog article of http://blog.broadbandmechanics..., that OpenID is an important element in deploying the social mesh services.

    In our opinion, OAuth would also be another critical element as well, and all of these open and important standards are being very proactively advocated by dataportability.org evangelists all over the web.

    Your article almost accurately reflects our service framework and core beliefs(!!) as we're very OpenID-centric, and we target to maximize interoperability among different social networing services.

    We based our service deployment on the Amazon AWS clouds, and right at this moment, tweaking code to expand to the Google App Engine platform.

    Inviting you to drop by www.MyMesh.com next week, and bring an OpenID ;-)

    Rgds, /ac.
    MyMesh.com

  • John McCrea

    That would be "write down," not "right down"! I promise the post is more articulate than that typo might suggest. :)

  • John McCrea

    Robert, Your article inspired me to right down a lot of stuff that's been coming together in my head. I think we now really know how to fix this, and I predict the solutions will emerge and snap together this year. Here's my post: http://therealmccrea.com/2008/...