Work with the system we have or build the system we want?

Mike Hearn, a former Google employee and Bitcoin developer, proposed to kill the Web and build a new platform for developing and delivering applications, arguing that the unmanageable complexity of the Web and its security flaws warrant its death. The piece pretty much reads like a marketing manifesto for a product that doesn’t even exist yet. I’m not convinced by the message, but it reminds me of the subway problem in New York.

The Web is like the New York subway system. The Web was born in 1989, and the subway in 1904. When they were conceived, they were not expected to perform at today’s scale.

The original City Hall subway station in New York City. (Untapped Cities)

As New York’s population grew, the subway’s capacity was incrementally added whenever needs arose. Routes were added, new tracks and stations were built, and old trains were replaced by new trains. Incrementally. All trains are dependent on an old signaling system that has not been thoroughly updated. The increasing loads are putting pressure on the system to increase supply of rides, which it fails to, or at least is perceived to have failed.

The Web was designed to display, interlink, share, and browse documents. It was not designed to serve up sophisticated applications to enable business transactions and personal activities. The Web became popular when users discovered they could conduct business and personal activities with an efficiency an order of magnitude better than the way they had been conducting them.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. (CERN)

To fix the subway, you must disrupt people’s lives in order to make meaningful changes; there is no alternative. The trains and roadways are already saturated. To overhaul the subway signal system, it might not be possible to selectively halt several lines and leave other lines open for service. There will come a time when there has to be a large scale outage to test the signal system. Because failure has potentially grave consequences, the scale and magnitude of the testing has to be considerable.

To fix the Web, you don’t need to kill it. Just offer an alternative and see if it proves to be a worthy replacement. Besides, the Web is not broken at all. It works, and it gives businesses and consumers what they want. The main problem with the Web is that it is simple for users to use it, and complex for developers to make things that users want. It’s not impossible to develop for the Web, just difficult. In that sense, the system is not sufficiently faulty to warrant an imminent and complete overhaul. Users aren’t complaining; developers are.

An obstacle to introducing a new Web applications platform will be the politics. Bitcoin is technically viable and popular, but its rise became derailed when power concentrated, according to Hearn. A core issue of any attempts on a new Web app platform would probably be handling the power structure and negotiating government regulations.

Open source software products like Python and JavaScript enjoyed enormous success in providing programming tools for free. Same with React and Ruby on Rails in Web development frameworks. I don’t see why there shouldn’t be an open source Web development platform that offers a new set of protocols as an alternative to HTML, HTTP, and so on; I could even imagine this innovation on a hardware level. But you really have to prove the efficacy of the alternative before advocating the death of the incumbent. This isn’t a presidential election.