Today I answered a question in email for a reporter who works for Wired UK. He asked smart questions, as I would expect from a Wired writer. (Some day I’ll tell you all my personal story of Wired UK – I lived over there for the better part of a year back in 1997, trying to make that magazine work. I mostly failed – but it’s up and running strong now.)
In any case, one question in particular struck me. The writer is preparing a piece on the future of search. (I’ll link to it when it comes out). What big problems, he asked, still plague search?
That got me thinking. Here’s my answer:
The largest issue with search is that we learned about it when the web was young, when the universe was “complete” – the entire web was searchable! Now our digital lives are utterly fractured – in apps, in walled gardens like Facebook, across clunky interfaces like those in automobiles or Comcast cable boxes. Re-uniting our digital lives into one platform that is “searchable” is to me the largest problem we face today.
It may be worth expanding on that sentiment. When it broke out in the mid 1990s, the web was society’s first at-scale digital artifact. It spread in orders of ten, first thousands, then millions, then hundreds of millions of pages – and on it went, to the billions it now encompasses. Everybody wanted to “be” on the web – a creator class started making pages and companies and services, a consumer class started “surfing” this vast new digital object, and our collective conscience marvelled at what we had created together: millions of small pieces loosely joined. And the key and unappreciated point is this: those pieces were indeed joined.
It was that joining – through links, of course – that made search possible, that created what is unquestionably the most powerful and lasting new company of the past 20 years – Google.* But as I wrote in Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation, Google’s core model – built on the open, linked world of the web – is under threat from the advance of the iPhone and the app, the Facebook and the Path, the automobile console, the Xbox, the cable box, and countless other “unlinked” digital artifacts.
Google knows this. Why else invest so much in Android, in Google+, in Motorola (it’s not just phones, it’s also cable boxes), in self-driving cars, for goodness sake? Google wants a foothold wherever digital information is created and shared, and man, are we creating a sh*t ton of it. Problem is, we’re not making it easy – or even possible – to link all this stuff together, should we care to.
Which takes me back to that core question the Wired reporter asked me: What’s the biggest problem plaguing search? In short, it’s that our digital world is no longer small pieces loosely joined. It’s also big chunks separate and apart. And that makes search – in its most broadest interpretation – damn near impossible.
Which leads to another question: What then, is search? Of course, the Wired reporter asked me that as well. My answer:
Search is now more than a web destination and a few words plugged into a box. Search is a mode, a method of interaction with the physical and virtual worlds. What is Siri but search? What are apps like Yelp or Foursquare, but structured search machines? Search has become embedded into everything, and has reached well beyond its web-based roots.
So we all search now, all the time, across all manner of artifacts, large and small. But our searches are not federated – we can’t search across these repositories, as we could across that wonderful, vast, loosely joined early world of the web. We’ve lost the connection.
Call me a fool, but I think the need for that connection will be so strong, that in time, we’ll sew all our digital artifacts back together again. At least, I certainly hope we will. Right now, it ain’t looking so likely – what with patent wars, wagon circling by big platforms, and the like. But I’m an optimist – and I hope you are as well.
* Sorry but Facebook isn’t there – yet. And Microsoft and Apple, well, they may make a play for that crown either 20 years ago or 20 years hence, but if you ask me for the most important company ever that launched as a native web business, the answer is indisputably Google.