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June 03, 2015

O'Reilly Radar » Simon St. Laurent

The power of connection

Over the past two decades, the heart of the Web has come to seem ordinary, forgettable. Some software has gone so far as to bury it and make it invisible, but it still worked its magic behind the scenes. As competing systems have made it disappear, though, absence has made many hearts grow fonder.

The humble URL is pretty ugly. The Web’s creator, Tim Berners-Lee, was embarrassed that people looked at them. It’s plain text, the computing interface that came right after punchcards and switches. The openings are always verbose, with a long “http://” (or similar) preceding the actual place you want to go. Excessively abstract debates about URIs aside, automated systems’ fondness for opaque identifiers has made many URLs hideous piles of characters that only a lookup table could enjoy. (Are QR codes even uglier?)

Even done badly, however, the URL is perhaps the most powerful innovation in networking history. While prior systems (IP addresses, DNS, and similar) had let us connect computers, URLs let us connect people’s creations. URLs let us share other people’s ideas, and promote our own ideas. The power to say “this bit of text will (mostly) reliably get you this content today” is a basic feature fundamental to the Web’s triumph.

We humans have a habit of mistaking the surface of a thing for a thing. The browser window seems like it is the Web, and if that window disappears, then somehow the Web itself has vanished. As the builders of assorted new devices have come to see their walled gardens as better cash registers than access to the Web, some days it can seem like the Web is dwindling.

Walled gardens suffer from a strange curse, though. The walls seem to grow inwards, not just separating applications from the world, but applications from each other. I can imagine a different world in which, from the very beginning, vendors had included a routing API that registered places within applications and made it easy to share and connect them. Today, though, as startups rush to reinvent deep linking, that absence is keenly felt.

The odd thing, though, is that substantial parts of the Web community have leapt to join native apps in that loss. Single page apps (SPA), as the name implies, are just one big container document containing a complete application. In the early days, and often still today, that meant one URL for everything in the app, with no way to point deeper. As SPAs have grown, more of them support URL-based routing that provides better shortcuts to points in the interface, and adaptive hybrid or isomorphic JavaScript models are edging many developers back to the multi-page app model. In many systems, URLs are returning to prominence beyond invisibly handled “routing.”

The URL is the Web’s most powerful feature. As social as it is technical, this connection brings us together in work, play, conversation, and more. If the Web continues to triumph, it won’t likely be thanks to outpacing native applications for sheer speed or features. This imperfect power of connection is the Web’s core competitive strength.

Public domain iron chain image via Pixabay.

by Simon St. Laurent at June 03, 2015 12:00 PM