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The Next 6 Billion

Some time this month, for the first time, there will be 7 Billion people alive on earth. In around 14 years, the United Nations predicts our population will reach 8 Billion. These are numbers the human mind has not evolved to intuitively understand.

According to most estimates just over 2 billion currently use the internet regularly (in ten years this has grown from around 360 million).

The growth in the web’s use, even in purely numerical terms is almost incomprehensibly dramatic. From .4% of the world’s population in 1995, to 5.9% in 2000, 13.9% in 2005, to today’s 30.4%.

When you add in the global and cultural reach of the web – currently 11% of the population of Africa, 24% of Asia, 31% of the middle east, as well as around 40% of Europe and Oceania, and nearly 80% of North America – then it’s clear we are seeing a global phenomenon the scale and breadth of which is unlike anything see in human history.

Which is in fact no accident.

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect

Lately, there has been a lot of concern expressed, by intelligent, experienced people I have a lot of respect for, about the future of the web, about its very viability.

I’ve engaged folks like Joe Hewitt in strenuous, but I believe healthy and important debate about these issues.

As I considered in my recent Web Directions presentation, A Dao of Web Design Revisited (article, slides and audio recording coming soon), I feel that many of these concerns strangely, uncannily, echo those which prompted my original Dao of Web Design article back in 2000.

A recent tweet by Aral Balkan (once again, a passionate, intelligent contributor to the web, who has spoken at our events, and hopefully will do again), retweeted by Lea Verou (another generous contributor to the web, and again, one of our past, and I hope future speakers) really captured for me the essence of the issue

#oneversion #manifesto My websites will only support the latest versions of browsers. It’s the browser makers’ duty to get users to upgrade.

Aral Balkan, Twitter, October 20 2011

So, what does this tweet, and predictions of world population have to do with one another?

I love the shiny stuff of the web – the gradients and animations, the transforms. As someone who has developed for the web for nearly 18 years, the ever increasing sophistication of the DOM, of JavaScript, the increase in the speed of JS engines, of rendering, the arrival of mobile platforms, and micro-mobile platforms for the web excite me as a user and a developer. But, they aren’t what gets me up in the morning. They aren’t what fires me up like no other platform before (I built my first Mac apps in 1986, and have had commercially available Mac OS apps continuously since 1994, and Windows apps since 1996).

What really, at the not so tender age of 45, keeps me as passionate and excited about building stuff as I was when about 16 and got my first TRS80 clone is the potential for the web to transform our world for the better. And overarching all this is the question, the challenge, how do we get the next 2 billion online, and ultimately, the next 6 billion people online?

This might not float your boat. And that’s fine. You might consider it an ideological position. And that’s your prerogative. But I know I’m not alone in believing that the potential, the promise, and in the face of overwhelming planet-wide challenges – anthropogenic climate change, global pandemics to name just two which our generation, and particularly my children’s generation will have to increasingly confront – the necessity of bringing our planet together, and enabling all of us to collaborate, share, communicate, without the friction of borders, is something only the web can hope to achieve.

Universality is a founding principle of the web. It is the manifesto the web has been built on, and I believe one of the key drivers of the almost unimaginable success of the web over these last two decades. We ignore that at the web’s peril.

The web alone, not iOS, or Android, or Windows Phone, or any other platform can possibly connect the next 6 billion. Yes, some, many of those 6 billion will be accessing the web via iOS, some via Android devices, some Windows Phone.

But, this next six billion is children in rural India, Africa, China where access to power, and networks, may be intermittent. It’s someone in Sumatra at a decade old Wintel box. It’s people who speak hundreds of different languages, with dozens of different writing systems. It’s people who are the first in their family to be able to read and write. It’s the 20% of people worldwide who can’t read or write. Yet.

So, to say “My websites will only support the latest versions of browsers”, you are in a sense saying, “I’m going to make the fact that developing for the web is harder than it would be if I concern myself with browsers other than the latest is not my problem, and not even the browser makers problem, it’s the problem of the next 6 billion. It’s not my problem, it’s the problem of the child in rural India, Africa, China.”

The truth is, the challenge of universality is daunting. It is hard work. But to me at least, paying this forward is the quid pro quo of the enormous privilege I’ve been granted to work on the web, which has given me fascinating well paid work, connections with thousands of intelligent, passionate, generous people around the world, and the opportunity to participate, in however insignificant a way, in something genuinely extraordinary, something unique. I can pay this forward by including rather than excluding people. By, in my own small way, helping ensure that the next 6 billion will be able to share in the privilege that I, you and the first 2 billion share in.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t continue to develop the capabilities of web technologies. It is not to say we shouldn’t continually explore what these technologies enable us to do.

But to me at least, we owe it to the web to do this in a way that is generous to the web in the way the web has been generous to us.

To reformulate the now famous question Steve Jobs asked of John Sculley:

Do you want to make shiny products for the privileged for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

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Thoroughly enjoyed Web Directions — met some great people, heard some inspiring presenters and added a whole bunch of things to my to-do list.

Joel Roberts Web Developer