Burying the URL

03 May 2014

If you’ve spent any time on the Internet in the past few days, I’m sure you’ve heard about the crazy shenanigans the people on the Chrome team at Google are pulling. In terms of interface experiments, this ranks right up there on a list of horrible decisions - and that includes the transparent menu bar. Needless to say, this change has caused a minor firestorm in the tiny corners of the web that care about such things.

In trying to make sense of this change, Allen Pike comes to the conclusion that the URL is a byproduct of a different web - or at least a different era - one that may not have a place among the modern, socially connected applications that make up an increasingly large portion of the web as we know it today.

Unlike other modern technologies that have hidden as much complexity as possible, web browsers have continued to put this technical artifact top center, dots, slashes and all. The noble URL caused a revolution in sharing and publishing. It is also a usability tarpit that directly competes with search.

Need further proof about the importance of URLs? Read Weaving the Web, Tim Berners-Lee’s excellent book on the origins and development of the World Wide Web at CERN in the early 90’s. It’s a fantastic insight into the software engineering that gave way to what is arguably the single most important technological development of the modern age.

Furthermore, development methods which make extensive use of Javascript (e.g, Twitter) have made linking increasingly complex.1 Chrome certainly isn’t the only browser to hide URLs, as Apple has also decided that this “implementation detail” shouldn’t be seen by users either.

To Google’s credit, Chrome developer advocate Paul Irish has spoken out against the feature and agrees that more testing is needed before a final decision can be made on whether it survives going forward. The very fact that Paul was the first to respond when this story reached Hacker News shows that Google recognizes the kind of fundamental change they are proposing.

It’s easy to understand the point of view of those who might support such a change. Security and protecting users from something they don’t fully understand are admirable goals, but overall this change is counterintuitive to the web’s mission and reason for being. Put another way, it reeks of the dark ages of AOL in the early to mid 1990’s, when the web was still in its infancy. While it might have been attractive at the time, it turned out the web was bigger than AOL.

The same can be said of Facebook today; I would have hoped developers and users would have learned something over the last 20 years (namely, that “web portals” have outlived their usefulness), but I guess that’s too optimistic a viewpoint to hope for. I can handle a walled garden of apps, but altering one of the fundamental assumptions of what is supposed to be a completely decentralized platform is going a step too far.

Still, one need only look to Facebook’s announcement of AppLinks to see that better connective tissue is needed between apps and the web.2 Viewed in that light, Google’s experiment is bound to raise some eyebrows as a major part of the web’s DNA is seemingly on the chopping block.

The web platform may not have become the “sweet solution” that it was promised to be, but hiding or destroying the usability of one of its key elements is not the answer.

  1. Episode #63 of the Accidental Tech Podcast touched on the implications of this a bit in the context of what Apple might be planning to do to improve the ways different apps can share data on iOS. However, the consensus seems to be that AppLinks exists solely to solve a problem unique to Facebook.

  2. If you (like me) have long since forgotten how we ended up in this sad state of affairs, Mike Davies' and Ben Ward's posts from February 2011 are an excellent primer on the subject.