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Leadership

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.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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