Failed Web Predictions And How Not To Talk To Web Developers

Picture the scene, it's 2010, you're a young web developer working in a satellite office of a fast paced digital agency. The work is interesting, but normally quite stressful as there are tight deadlines and high expectations on delivering good work. There is a lot going on so you tend to finish one website and jump onto the next.

The company you work for has a history of firing people and making people redundant, especially in the satellite office you work at. Low morale, a culture of blame, and absolutely zero investment in people means that there is very little enthusiasm for the work from anyone. The economy is still recovering from the collapse of the banking system from a couple of years before.

You have a young family at home and so you'll put up with a lot of poor working conditions to ensure a pay cheque every month.

Then one day, the MD of the company comes to visit your satellite office. They gather everyone into a meeting room and with a smile on their face they excitedly announce that:

All websites will be dead in 5 years.

There were a few worried glances around the room, but everyone remained quiet. The message, however, was clear. The MD was expecting that the web industry the company was built on would simply not exist before the end of the decade.

Everyone was either expected to re-skill or be forced to find another job. Not exactly the best thing to say to a group of demoralized and stressed developers.

At the time I didn't think the prediction was worth much. It did concern me, but I knew that there would be a place for me in the web industry somewhere. If websites were gone then web services might still be needed. If not I could go back to being on an IT help desk, which I had experience in.

It's very clear that after 11 years this prediction was utter garbage.

So What Happened?

That was back in 2010, and at the time there was one thing in particular shaking the foundations of the tech community. The smart phone. The iPhone had been released just a few years earlier and everyone was launching their app on the app store for people to download. Google had followed with Android and the Android Market around the same time. In 2010, with millions of apps in both stores and billions of downloads it was a certainty that the smart device was here to stay. There was some excitement in getting a smart phone and installing a few apps, something we take for granted today.

The MD of the company made the prediction because they were certain that everyone would be installing apps and not visiting websites. They were absolutely sure that users would simply swap over to apps and that websites would become an afterthought very quickly.

The trend at the time as everyone had an app of some kind, and many apps didn't even have a website. The assumption was that instead of visiting a website to consume content, users would simply open an app and consume the content from there.

Fundamentally, the problem was that a phone app put a barrier between the content and the user that simply didn't exist before. Since the beginning of the internet, a user could enter a link or search for content with the minimum of fuss. With apps instead of websites, if the user wanted to get access to your content they had to go to an app store, search for an app, install it, open the app, sometimes register their user details on the app, and only then find what they were looking for. I can remember seeing very extensive pages on websites in 2010 that detailed how to install apps. The process wasn't quite as straightforward as it is today.

The market was quickly becoming saturated with apps of all shapes and sizes and as people had a limited amount of space on their devices it soon reached saturation point. Users would install a few apps that they wanted (usually the social media sites) and then continue to use the internet like they always had done.

One thing to note was that using the web in 2010 on a mobile device was an absolutely terrible experience. It has got much better today, but back then we were all still trying to figure out the best way to create sites that worked on all devices. The term "responsive design" was pretty new and although CSS 3 had been drafted a few years prior we were very much stuck in a world with varying versions of Internet Explorer. In 2010 less than 3% of all traffic to the web was through a mobile device so many sites would simply not bother about their mobile users.

There was another issue of expense of building apps in the first place. Many large sites could build an app to compete in the app marketplace, but this created a divide for everyone else that couldn't afford to do so. No small shop or charity could afford to spend thousands building and maintaining an app and a website at the same time and in the end, the web won.

Not An App, A Web App

As smart phones became more powerful, and the technology to support them on the internet improved, another shift started to happen. Instead of creating expensive apps that probably wouldn't be used, you could opt to make your site act like an app when viewed on certain devices. This lead to a whole new way of thinking about creating user interface elements on the web that would work for both web users and mobile users alike. The hamburger menu was invented around this time as an alternative to drop down menus that acted on mouse hover events. This change also meant that you didn't need to spend lots of money developing and supporting an app, you could just create a single solution that fitted both needs. Advances in offline storage have also allowed websites to act more like apps than ever before. A website can now lose contact with the internet and sync the user's data once the connection has been restored.

This improvement in mobile technology has benefited more than just users who want to chose between websites and apps. Most of the world actually accesses the internet on a mobile device, so the advances in mobile technologies have improved the life for billions of users around the world. Especially those users who have no other way to access the internet.

Ultimately, the prediction of all websites being gone in 5 years was shortsighted. It failed to appreciate that the internet didn't consist of a few large sites but was made up of billions of sites that had no means or ability to put an app on the various app stores. Market saturation happened very quickly in the app stores and today it is actually quite difficult to launch an app that will do well as there are so many apps competing in a small space.

Today, the barrier to putting a site on the internet has reduced even further as there are many website creators, hosting providers or content platforms around that will fulfill the need. It's easier than ever to get your content on the internet in a mobile friendly manner.

I did learn something from this experience in the end. If you want your developers to do a good job then not excitedly mocking them is a good place to start. More importantly though, the web (and technology in general) always changes in ways we can't predict. You might look at trends and technologies, make a prediction, and then some new piece of technology will come along and change everything. Many people say that the web changes every few weeks, but it is fundamentally the same thing it always was. It is just the technologies surrounding it that have changed and adapted over the years. One thing is certain though, it isn't going to disappear overnight.

Did your managers have any similar predictions that didn't turn out to be true? Leave a comment below and tell us.

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