Where Syndication Could Lead

Album Cover: Wincing the Night Away

"It's like I'm perched on the handlebars of a blind man's bike."
The Shins / Spilt Needles

Posted on May 22, 2004 2:58 PM in Browsers
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

While reading a Slashdotted article today about the future of web standards, I began to really think about how the future of the Web will look. I was a little surprised at how quickly the meandering of my mind led me to a future where web browsers are no longer used and web designers are about as popular as phonograph repairmen.

What's even more surprising is how little meandering was necessary to reach such a conclusion. If you take a look at the way the Web is changing today, you'll quickly notice that more and more commercial websites are providing syndicated (apologies to Jason Kottke) content. For the most part, this content is the meat of the website served up in a raw format that can be used virtually anywhere, thanks to the beauty of XML.

Now if you step back a bit and think about what the main purpose of the World Wide Web is, you'll realize that it is a source (and a very large source at that) of information. People flock to the Web in herds and herds because they are after content of some shape or form. Now, we web designers of the world may think that people are as turned on as we are about the pretty ways we've displayed our content, but the fact of the matter is, Joe user really doesn't care.

One of the main reasons my site has been popular recently is because of a post I made about the next version of Firefox. I can pretty much guarantee you that close to 100% of the people who entered the realm of my website to find that information would have been just as happy to see it displayed in a chunk of Times New Roman text as they were seeing it in the actual design of my site.

What this means is, web designers may not have a future at all. It's possible that web browsers as we know them today may not have a future either. As news aggregators become more popular and content providers keep adding more and more feeds (in Atom, RSS, or whatever format it may be), web browsers' main purpose may become finding those feeds. However, I am guessing that at some point the aggregators will become (and maybe some already have?) smart enough to find all feeds at any given domain. This also could mean that Google will no longer return hypertext links as search results, but feed URIs instead. Wow!

The beauty of syndication is that all the content someone is interested in is presented in a homogenous way. Like I've heard it described before, it's just like someone reading a newspaper. The reader would much rather see all the articles in the same font and layout style than to see different font sizes, colors, and presentation with each piece of information.

This whole evolution makes sense, when you think about the history of HTML. It started out as a subset of XML that ended up looking and feeling a lot more bloated. This was mostly the fault of the browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer that, back in the early days of the web, played nice with unclosed tags and the other unfortunate elements of what today is known as "tag soup."

Fast forward to today and we've gotten smarter. Over time, thanks to the devotion of the W3C and many other intelligent people, HTML has slowly slimmed down to become a believable subset of XML again. This is mostly due to the advancements of CSS and XHTML.

Now that this somewhat long but necessary shift has occurred, we see another on the horizon. The nature of the beast is changing once again, as XML is replacing XHTML in a lot of cases (or playing nicely alongside it), and content is being viewed and tracked externally to where it lives.

There's a good chance that the future may look completely different that what I've laid out here, but I believe there's an even better chance that a lot of what I've said can and will come true in due time. All it takes is a good look at the past and a solid understanding of the fundamental purpose of the Web to see that things are going to change in a lot of different ways. As a web designer, it's all pretty difficult to take, but as a user of the Web and a sponge for information, it's all pretty easy to believe.

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