Dirk Knemeyer

Digital convergence

Digital convergence, May 5, 2004

A short comment contextualizing the prediction could go right here

The future of Web design is one of integrated specialization. Whereas the Web exists now as a major cultural force, something that has changed the human paradigm and demonstrably altered reality, its role will become increasingly smaller and more specialized. That does not mean that it will be any less complicated or less important. Rather, instead of being the brash virtuoso, it will join an ever-growing and complicated symphony.

[…]The future of the Web will evolve similarly to the technology of telling time. Like timepieces, which deliver information to people, the Web is ultimately a delivery medium: it delivers information, experiences and communication. And we are at a point where we are struggling to produce—relatively speaking—rather simple products. That is not to criticize the work that we are doing, but rather to underscore the extremely immature stage the Web is in. The major issues that plague us, ranging from standards to usability to aesthetics to advertising to classification, parallel the challenges that faced clockmakers between the Renaissance and the invention of the quartz crystal. Like Web designers today, a veritable army of skilled practitioners worked on micro-sized problems to make incremental changes that would improve the clocks and watches so their performance would better match the needs of people. However, things changed quickly thereafter in timekeeping, with the quartz crystal and digital technology changing the traditional industry from an extremely important, highly-skilled and lucrative trade into a dinosaur almost overnight. Web design is in a similar evolutionary stage today.

What is going to be our quartz crystal? What new technologies, innovations or trends will re-define Web design?

Convergence: technologies are crashing together

It has happened so quickly: cellular phones, personal data assistants, cameras and the Internet are now all contained in a single product that is readily available and affordable. At the same time, personal computers, televisions, DVD players, digital recording technology and the Internet are all fully accessible in one single product that is readily available and affordable. At the same time, radios, telephones and digital positioning systems exist in a single component that is standard in automobiles from most major manufacturers. And the convergence is only going to accelerate in the years ahead.

At the same time, consider that Web design began as a relatively linear and controlled activity. People accessed the Web from personal computers, with a fairly standardized connection rate and a finite amount of interface and display devices. The majority of challenges were in dealing with the newness, uncertainty and changing nature of this new medium. From this initial period of controlled innovation we moved into the current paradigm of complex optimization. Even as we scrutinize micro-elements of Web design as we know it, we are faced with increasingly complicated challenges that are not yet touching mainstream developers, such as design for mobile interface devices. The design of applications and interfaces optimized for portable devices will emerge as the essential challenge—and area of opportunity—in the years ahead. And even though that shift in itself is significant, that is only part of the picture.

As digital products continue to converge, the Web will increasingly become just one component of more complicated products. Many of the difficult decisions that dominate today’s conversation about Web design will either be settled or be relegated to a position of much less significance. Furthermore, Web design, as a distinct field of professional practice, will decline in prominence and opportunity. Along with the Web becoming an integrated and smaller component of complicated digital products, the gap between the interface and application side will continually grow—to the point where the relative “jack-of-all-trades” Web designers of today will become extinct. At one extreme you will have the strategic professionals who will need a broad understanding not just of the Web, but of other products and technologies that are part of complex digital products. At the other extreme, there will be tactical specialists who will need a deep understanding of well-defined areas of expertise. It will be their job to implement high-level, complicated solutions but ones that are, nonetheless, only small components of the overall product.