Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Web Vs. Gadgets: Who Will Win?

Delos from the very tight and informative webcomic blog ArtPatient recently wrote, "the way things are evolving, we’ll soon be able to get every digital entertainment on every device on demand."

It may sound just a bit extreme out of context, so consider reading the article on ArtPatient.

I don't love reading on a computer monitor, but it's the best tool most of us have, especially for respecting the intended display.

By implication, that means that most other devices are going to be worse, though they may increase online viewing by allowing it while skydiving, or sharing a cab with a man who must list his grievances against the Pakistani ruling party.

Having spent time with a friend who used his iPhone to successfully navigate our car six blocks across the town where I grew up, I am a portability enthusiast. I await a decent, color Kindle so that I can fall asleep with a machine on my chest, not a book ready to bloody me with paper cuts.

It gets less interesting when you think how mini devices and micro screens can diminish the possibilities of the web. I've spoken before about how backward webcomics seem when it comes to exploiting web opportunities like dynamic imaging, spot animation, comprehensive design, bending ads and widgets to our will instead of vice versa and creating a sense of place instead of a place on a web page. These are areas I want to explore, and I sense a priorities clash with people still using devices from Batman's utility belt (circa Adam West) to participate.

I can already see blogs and "For Idiots" books with advice like, "For portable device legibility, never include a graphic smaller than a Big Gulp." Or, "Remember to set aside half your screen for the scroll bar."

Think about how many Happy Meals MacDonalds sells in a year, and I'll tell you a rule I learned when I was in the waste and recycling industry: The more immediate the gratification, the sooner the item will end up in the trash. If someone introduces a mini computer, comparable to an iMac that fits in your pocket, its complexity will guarantee it a long lifetime of use, or at least, storage. The same device, so brilliantly simple that you are an advanced Photoshop user after ten minutes, will be swallowed up by Dumpsters faster than the iPods that were hot a short time ago and are now gone.

The reason, I think, is that convenience cheapens value by rendering it frivolous. The human stake is an essential part of assigning value to an object or experience.

Simple page-style web sites, organized to present text, numbers and diagrams, will always have value, and will make up the majority of the web. As long as you don't require vision correction beyond what's needed to spot a peach pit on Mt. Everest while standing on the Eiffel Tower, they work great on mobile devices.

But it seems that more ornate and interesting websites with functionality beyond the commonplace are on a collision course with any device that sacrifices web quality for convenience. Some advocates of simplicity may suggest that involved websites are incompatible with the future. Maybe for their future, but my future does not envision a return to the abacus.

Someone may invent a device that does the web justice and meets portability and other requirements of many users, and I'm watching Amazon and Apple to see if they can sort it out. If not, I think the quality leaps possible in web design will define gadgets out as contenders for web manipulation.

I've considered that a web site with a sophisticated webcomic, full of dynamic interactions, may not be enough to make most people care about gadget quality when they can access Walmart.com and other popular sites with ease. Their problems begin when Walmart, or one of its competitors, says, "Gee, why don't we try to gain an edge using this brilliant technology that's only being used by artists?"  The domino effect begins, and soon only low rent sites will lack that the Web 3.0 look that everyone's so hot about. The next catchphrases may be texture and dynamic elegance.

A good entertainment web site circa 2012 should be able to compete well against the best ride Disney can build, the best show on TV and the best Hollywood offering. We have much more control, much less bureaucracy, more programmers, developers and designers and untapped potential greater than any competitor. The only blemish is why so many of us are stalled in the present, able to think of a hundred reasons to settle, instead of salivating at the prospects.