Standalone Web Services and the Decline of the Browser

Back around 1997 I speculated to a colleague that the general purpose web browser would disappear in 10 years. My rationale was that the user experience of HTML and the web at the time was so limited that users would be enticed by installable widgets that combined the advantages of the desktop for rich interactivity plus an HTTP “back end” for access to web-based services.

Skip ahead 12 years and obviously my prediction hasn’t come true – quite. The main reason is that Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) have been achieved inside the browser using technologies like Flash and AJAX and the challenges of installation and maintenance have held back widespread adoption of desktop widgets.

However there is one other reason why widgets have not taken off and it has nothing to do with the widget. It all has to do with the hitherto tight coupling between the server and the client in web-based “services”. All web applications to-date have had the back-end services and the front-end “browser experience” developed and marketed by the one company as a complete unit.

Until recently there were no standalone web services. Very few, if any public web services have been designed with multiple different and independent front-ends in mind. Where they have emerged, they tended to be “hacks” created by individuals who came up with creative ways to re-purpose back-end services. Perhaps the pioneer was the use of Gmail as a file system.

I think this situation is about to change dramatically, driven by a number of factors:

  1. New platforms such as iPhone and Android make web-based widgets more compelling compared with the generic browser on those platforms.
  2. There are now well-established standards for web services in platform neutral formats (I’m thinking JSON and XML)
  3. Cloud computing further reduces the entry cost for service providers.

The main element that remains is for the business models to emerge around pure service delivery. Twitter is the most visible example that a company can provide web-based services as its primary mission and leave the development of user interfaces to others. Biz Stone of Twitter states that:

“The API has been arguably the most important, or maybe even inarguably, the most important thing we’ve done with Twitter. It has allowed us, first of all, to keep the service very simple and create a simple API so that developers can build on top of our infrastructure and come up with ideas that are way better than our ideas…”

Biz then goes on to describe how the API is central to their business model plans.

Another good example of standalone web services is how OpenID provides authentication services which are completely independent of the consuming business/application. Sites like StackOverflow can then outsource the boring authentication bits of their site and concentrate on more important content.

This is where the service-oriented architecture of the web really becomes interesting…a loosely coupled ecosystem of service consumers and providers providing the real architecture for serendipity.

Update 04/05/09: I recently found an interesting slide presentation on this topic entitled “The Rise of the Widgets” – well worth a look.