Internet years are like dog years - I dog year is the same as 7 human years so, the joke is that if you fly your dog to LA, the jet lag is 7 times as bad for him! And if you leave your website without updates for as long as your print material - it will start to look a little jetlagged itself.
Web Design Changes Fast
Let's roll back a little and try and explain what the problem is. The internet moves fast. Really fast. You think you have just caught up and you find a whole new sub-culture has emerged, blossomed and died and you missed the whole lot. Web design is no different. I've been making web sites since 1996 and in all that time I think the rate of change is actually speeding up.
Back in the old days the problems were caused by the "browser wars". King of the heap was Netscape 3, it could show tables with background images and crazy stuff like that!! None of the other browsers could match it (IE3, Mozilla, Lynx...). But then Microsoft woke up to the internet and made IE4 a better browser, they invented their own html specification which gave great results - but didn’t work in Netscape. Netscape hit back with their own systems - which didn't work in IE4.
It was exciting but chaotic. Programmers were working to browser demands and not the official html standards, which were torn up and thrown away. Every few months another browser version would come out and change the rules yet again.
And then eventually things started to calm down. We began to understand what a website was and how it should work. Browser makers had got all the features they needed and we now had a mature landscape.
The next step was the shift to CMS website design. Now that we understood what websites were we could start to build frameworks that could be re-used. A lot of design companies (ours included) built their own CMS systems, it looked pretty easy, an access database and a few files and voila - CMS.
Gradually though, there began to emerge a small group of open source systems that were better than a design company had knocked up in their down time - and had the magic price of "FREE". The web is now dominated by Wordpress, Joomla and, our favourite Drupal.
These are massive undertakings with hundreds of thousands of hours of work going into each of them. These frameworks have given us the freedom to weave useful adaptable sites for very small outlays. Again it seemed like we had found a point of maturity and we could all relax.
Mobile Responsive Web Site Design
And then we all went mobile. It had been a long time coming. Even back in 2000 people were excitedly setting up mobile divisions to focus on developing for WAP. The fools! WAP was just no good, the hardware wasn’t up to it and was expensive. The user interface was horrible. But the thing that really started the ball rolling was the iPhone.
We were very late to get on board with all of this. I'm too mean to buy an iPhone at £35 per month and they looked like expensive toys for Apple fanbois. Seeing "sent from my iPhone" at the end of an email seemeed a little ostentatious.
They also brought out the iPad. Again I scoffed, balked at the price and bought a netbook which did more for half the cost. But over the last couple of years the prices of these devices has come down dramatically. You can buy a PAYG Android phone now for £100 - or 3 months worth of an iPhone contract. A seven inch tablet can be yours for the same. People are buying them in their millions.
Google also arrived a little late - and they had some catching up to do. They were effectively subsidising hardware to break Apple's dominance of the market, and that meant that lots more people were looking at websites on small mobile devices.
Which means web designers have to figure out ways of delivering content to any size screen on thousands of different devices. Which has spawned a new phrase - " Responsive Web Design" - or RWD, which is a system that dynamically adjusts the page layout and content to the screen size. So, if you are looking at a page on a 26" monitor you get the whole shebang, sidebars, navigation, adverts, comment stream - but if you are on a 4" mobile you get a simple column of text with mobile-friendly drop-down navigation. We are back to a situation where we don’t quite know how this works anymore. It's all too new and the kinks aren’t all ironed out yet.
So, why has it all changed so fast? Well, the first reason is "Moore's Law" - hardware doubles in size and halves in price every year. You can buy a laptop now for £200 that will do everything you need. Not so long ago a far inferior product would have cost you £1000. As we have more devices with more power, we get more use out them. The more connectivity there is, the more useful the information becomes. I remember back in the 90's there was a website that could tell you if the Coke machine at MIT was empty. It was an interesting novelty at the time. But info about stocking levels of all the Coke machines in the world becomes a pretty valuable commodity if you're selling soft drinks.
The other reason for the pace of change is the huge amounts of money that can be made, this brings in large sums of investment capital to fund R&D. Everybody is looking for an edge to be that one step ahead of the competition. If your competitor has a mobile site and you don't, then you will lose customers to them.
So it's all great huh? You've got cheap hardware, free software and plenty of work, what's not to like?
Is Web Design in Crisis?
There are 3 main problems:
- Development cycles are too slow - projects are obsolete upon completion.
- We need to learn new systems for every project. In the old days we would develop a product and sell it multiple times, but now if we go to resell old code we find it is obsolete.
- Our customers didn't want to pay for a new site again.
Tricky stuff - and a difficult tightrope to negotiate.
It would be nice to think that this was it, the final development of world wide web design, but it's hard to imagine this train stopping anytime soon. Moore's Law still applies, so the physical shift is going to keep on changing. The software systems we are building now are built on the shoulders of the giants of the past, so they are going to keep on improving.
As we get more devices, more connections and more data the whole internet is going to start looking very different. It's very exciting, very intriguing and a lot of hard work, but who would want to do anything else? Maybe a jet-lagged dog?