The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.
“Its universality is essential.” That short phrase describes the most exciting and fundamental aspect of the Web: that anyone can access it, on any device, at any time, from anywhere. Isn’t that a wonderful vision to hold on to?
In the arms race of modern web/app development, it seems we’ve stopped caring about that universality. We expect everyone to be on high-end devices, with high speed access, and so we design our software for these users, sticking a middle finger up to everyone else.
We expect users to give up their data to our silos, mine it for its wealth, and build on it (or discard it) when our Small Biz is acquired by Big Corp. We don’t value our users, or their data. We pay little heed to longevity or preservation. The ephemeral nature of the Web is celebrated as a virtue, the short-term gains considered more valuable than the long-term view.
Enable and Empower
Have we web-developers forgotten what our role is? We are enablers, we aren’t custodians. We should empower people by providing software that works simply and universally. We shouldn’t be making decisions about how people access information and services. It’s not our place to dictate who can use the web or on what terms. What we wish for as developers often has no relation with what users want or need.
There’s no doubt that a large proportion of modern software is not universally accessible. Apps and games that are only available through curated stores require users to have devices with a minimum spec. And many of these apps simply aren’t available anywhere else. We can consider many of these creations to be outside the scope of “universally accessible”. But accepting this does not mean we have to perpetuate it.
Change your attitude
If you’re building the next great thing that requires a big screen, a fat broadband pipe, and only works on the very latest browser, or requires the very latest most powerful smartphone, you might stop and think for a moment.
Consider the users with the slow connection, the small screen, the underpowered phone, and think about them accessing your service or site, or the information you’re providing. Think about the technical decisions you’re making that might prevent access. Have you built something universally accessible? If not, why not? Who made the decisions to limit access, and what are they gaining from it?
Think about the power of the web to bring people together. Think about the projects you can work on that empower humanity to work together. Think about what you can build that’s universally accessible, and with greater benefit than the thousands of pointless apps that litter the digital wasteland. Instead of being a me-too developer that simply does what they’re told, why not start taking an active role in making better software that enables and empowers people?
Don’t just be a web-developer. Be a universal web-developer.