The Forgotten Edge: Building a Purpose-Centric Web

Abstract Since it's inception, the primary metaphor of the Web has been one of location. By framing the Web as a collection of places, we have necessarily caused Web development to focus on servers. But people don't get online to go to a server. They get online to get something done--achieve a purpose. This talk argues that focusing on purpose allows us to build Web applications that more closely align with what people want from the Web. Focusing on purpose will require a move to more intelligent client-side applications.

Technological development in the area of Internet identity over the last several years has left us well prepared for this move to the client. In particular, we argue that identity selectors are a great platform for building these purpose-managing client-site applications. Coupled with a rise in social networking tools that give individuals greater voice in conversations with the organizations that server them, these advances promise a Web that is less focused on location and more focused on purpose. We conclude with six rules for a purpose-centric Web and a call for others to join in helping build it.


David Weinberger (left) and Doc Searls In 2003, Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote an essay called World of Ends. The thesis was simple: "the Net is a world of ends. You're at one end, and everybody and everything else are at the other ends." This idea that the ends are what is important online is critical to understanding where the value lies and how to best add value to the 'Net.

From 1993, when the Web was brand-new, to the present we have largely focused our attention on one type of end, or one edge, if you will: the server. Browsers have been seen as a given, something that is and works. To create value online, most people have worked at the server. This has created a pat formula for online success, repeated over and over:

  • Get a good address
  • Build a killer site with great content
  • Advertise to get traffic
  • Make the site sticky
  • Convert traffic into sales or eyeballs
  • Rinse and repeat...

There's nothing wrong with this, of course. Working at the server has created an amazing array of Web sites and services that simply astound me.

But I believe there is significant value to be created at the edge of the network we call the browser. And that for the most part we've ignored it. Browsers have gotten flashier and fancier over the years, but for the most part their job is simple:

  1. Go to a URL
  2. Get the content
  3. Render the content properly

That's not to discount the tremendous and enormously fertile world of browser extensions, but in truth, only Firefox has made browser extensions easy enough to create a significant extension ecosystem. Building extensions for Internet Explorer or Safari is not for the faint of heart and requires real expertise.

Our focus on the server is related to the primary metaphor we use for understanding the Web: location. We "go" to Web "sites" using an "address." The first decade of the Web has been characterized as a "land rush."

The problem with ignoring most of the endpoints on the Web is that it leads Web application developers to force fit things that would be better done on the client using a server instead. Portals are one example. Portals try to pull multiple applications and data together into one place to make it more convenient for people to use. Travel portals are a good example.

But portals are rarely successful in really giving people what they want. The answer isn't better personalization. They answer is to move that functionality to the client.

The location metaphor isn't bad; after all, servers are places. The problem is that it doesn't go far enough. I believe that we can extend the location metaphor in a way that gives us a new way of thinking about how to solve people's problems.

The Purpose-Centric Web

Most people don't fire up their browser to go somewhere, rather they want to accomplish something. While going places is part of finishing a task, it's not enough to just go someplace unless that one place happens to have everything you need. More often than not, online sessions consist of visits to multiple Web sites over time. Consequently, a better metaphor for building Web applications would be purpose.

As an example, consider the purpose of "finding a book to read." Finding a book is not necessarily the same as going to Amazons or Borders. Those are great sites to browse for books, read reviews, and buy books; but, what if I my preference is to check the book out from my local library when it's available? Right now, that requires that I visit at least two sites: Amazon and my local library. I connect those experiences together by conducting the same search on each and then collecting the data.

"Finding a book to read" is a relatively simple task compared to other tasks that people do online everyday. A more complex example is "planning a vacation." People spend weeks and visit dozens of Web sites planning their vacations online. It's rarely the case that one Web site provides them with everything they need. That is simple counter to the distributed nature of the Web itself.

Let's return to the task of finding a book and consider how it might be made simpler. The browser can see both Amazon and my library's Web site. A tool, on my browser, could modify Amazon to inform me when I'm looking at a book that's available at the library like so:

As this video shows, an intelligent, adaptable browser helps people achieve their purpose rather than simply taking them to a Web site.

A purpose-centric metaphor supports a different intention than a location-based metaphor. The following table, which we'll expand later, shows this:

Locationgo and get
Purposedo and know

In a location-based Web we "go and get" whereas in a purpose-centric web we "do and know."

Identity on the Web

Back in 1993, I was part of an email list that was discussing ecommerce (although it wasn't yet called that). There were two things that people really wanted: a way to take credit cards securely and a way to create a shopping cart. The first was solved with the emergence of SSL. The second required cookies.

HTTP is a stateless protocol, meaning that each request is processed independently of any previous requests. That's great for returning pages of text, but makes building things like shopping carts--which are by definition stateful--difficult. Cookies are tokens sent by the server and stored by the browser to be returned to the server with any subsequent requests to that same Web site. They were the answer to build shopping carts and other applications that require intra-site state like authentication systems.

Because cookies were good enough for most things people wanted to do on the location-based Web, there wasn't much interest in identity systems that went beyond cookies. But cookies have some significant limitations. Most relevant to this discussion: browsers are designed to only share cookies with the site that sent them. This ensures a level of privacy and security, but makes it impossible to use cookies as the basis for a purpose-centric Web. At best, they could only be used when sites have decide to cooperate beforehand.

Kim Cameron These limitations caused people like Kim Cameron at Microsoft to look beyond server-based solutions and decide that a special purpose client was needed. Kim invented an identity system called "information cards" based on a card-metaphor--something very familiar to people--that uses a special client called a "selector."

Here's a screenshot of the AzigoLite selector:

AzigoLite card selector

Each of the cards in this selector have an "action" attached to them, making them into client-side Web applications that have the ability to coordinate activities at multiple sites. Of course, because it's just a card in the selector, if the person doesn't like what the card is doing, it's easy enough to delete it or turn it off.

Card selectors provide some significant features for the purpose-centric Web:

  • selectors provide real, cryptographically sound identity
  • the selector model provides protection for personally identifying information
  • selectors provides smart client that can be used to message user in a secure way
  • Strong identity model provides foundation for certification and reputation of cards and their associated applications

Strong, cross-site identity, like that provided by a card selector, running on a client, enables purpose-centric browsing. We can add this our matrix:

Locationgo and getcookies
Purposedo and knowselectors

A New Communications Model

Moving to a purpose-centric Web will allow us to change how organizations have come to relate to individuals online. In the traditional customer communications model--supported by advertising and CRM systems--organizations broadcast information to individuals in a top-down manner.

Traditional organizational communications model

Over the last century, this form of communication has gotten less and less personal while at the same time businesses tried to make it more and more targeted. With the Internet, this has only gotten worse as businesses put ads on Web sites and turned to ever more invasive tactics to increase the click thru rate. The result is ironic: the closer companies get with demographics, the more their customers resent it and retreat.

Companies have to rely on demographics when identity is missing. But as we've seen, new technologies are adding an identity layer to the Web. An identity layer provides an opportunity to flip the traditional demographics-based model on it's head. In the new personal communications model, information flows from the individual to the organization. These flows are owned and initiated by the individual.

The emerging personal communications model

Why would people do this? Simple: to increase their choice and the level of service they receive. In fact they already do. When someone posts information about their interactions with companies on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or a blog, they are actively engaging that organization and sending information through a personally controlled channel that smart businesses will capitalize on. The rise of Web-site independent identity will only accelerate this trend toward active participation.

This is an important component of the purpose-centric Web because only the individual can tell us their intention or purpose. A purpose-centric Web requires active participation by individuals. We can add this to our chart:

Locationgo and getcookiesorganizational
Purposedo and knowselectorspersonal

Note: See Craig Burton's essay on The Inverted Pyramid for more on this idea.

Rules for a Purpose-Centric Web

There are a number of important principles, or rules, that we need to remember if we are to capitalize on purpose:

  1. Purpose matters more than location. To an individual using the Web, giving them a place to go only goes so far in helping the accomplish their goals. We provide significant, additional value when we, instead, help them achieve their purpose. Many Web sites have recognized this, but few have really achieved it because of our focus on servers.
  2. Freedom of choice matters more than controlling the user. The traditional way companies have approached customers is as "things" to be "owned," "controlled," "locked up," and "targeted." In the emerging model, individuals have considerable power. Wielding that power will level the playing field. Companies that recognize this power shift and work within it are more likely to build customer loyalty.
  3. Context matters more than content. Content is dead--or at least not a very good way to differentiate. Just ask the newspapers. But putting content in context, as in the library lookup example I give in a preceding paragraph, makes it more actionable and this more useful and valuable.
  4. Relationships matter more than transactions. The lifetime value of a customer is obviously much greater than any single transaction--if you can get them to come back. In a world where goods have been commoditized and a cheaper price is only a Google search away, building relationships matters more than ever. I talk to people all the time to shop preferentially at Amazon, even when it's more expensive, because it's familiar, convenient, and has their trust.
  5. Loyalty matters more than "time on site." Most of the traditional Web site KPIs are structured around the traditional, broadcast-style communications model and heavily influenced by the location metaphor of the Web. Companies spend money on ads with microscopic click-thru rates. They spend money to make their sites "sticky" to entice the click-thrus to increase "time on site." Finally, we measure conversion that represents a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the people who originally were shown an offer. Conversely, if you offer people a way to achieve a purpose on the client, you have started to build a relationship that can be nurtured to create real customer loyalty.
  6. Individuals matter more than demograpics. Knowing that I'm a white, male from Utah who drives a truck is better than nothing. But it's much better to know that right now, I'm in a hotel in Vegas and really need an iPhone charging cable and that I'm willing to pay for someone to get it to me. Under the right circumstances, individuals will freely share relevant information making demographic data less and less valuable to companies ready to work with customers rather than shout at them and lock them up.

Kynetx and Purpose-Centric Web Applications

Kynetx is an infrastructure provider with the goal of making purpose-centric applications easier to build. Kynetx works at the client-site of the Web thus enabling applications that work across multiple Web sites.

Here's how the Amazon Library Lookup example we showed earlier is done:

How Kynetx works
  1. The user visits Amazon
  2. A browser extension queries the card selector to determine if any of the installed cards are relevant to Amazon
  3. If so, a request is sent to the Kynetx Network Service (KNS) execute the Kynetx ruleset associated with that card (given in the card's metadata)
  4. KNS returns custom Javascript for that request which modifies the page DOM and thus rewrites tha page to show the notification

Kynetx bridges the individual silos represented by Amazon and the Minute Man Library to create an integrated experience for the user that more closely aligns with the user's purpose: find a book to read.

With any new platform, security is a concern. This is especially true on the client. Kynetx recognizes this and is working hard to address it. We don't have all the answers, but believe that a combination of identity selectors on the client and rules in the cloud provide numerous hooks for building an effective security model that protects users while giving them the advantages of client-side applications.

A Call to Action

The client is on the Web's forgotten edge--largely ignored by developers. Web sites are locations--useful in accomplishing a goal, but unable to provide a complete experience. But by centering development at the client, developers can build applications that span multiple Web sites and help people with purpose. If information card selectors are to serve as a platform for this purpose-centric Web, there is still a few missing pieces.

Some of the missing piece are things like standards that will allow everyone to play in this purpose-centric Web. Those are coming.

The most notable "missing piece" is that the Microsoft CardSpace selector does not yet support purpose-centric Web applications. If our vision of a purpose-centric Web is to become a reality, selectors must become ubiquitous and users need choice. The Azigo selector can be used as a foundation for controlling purpose-centric client-side applications. Users would be well served if the CardSpace selector were similarly enabled. We call on Microsoft to be part of this effort.

If you're interested in exploring Kynetx and building your own rules, sign up for a develop account. They're free.

This essay presents the material from the slides from my keynote speech at Digital Identity World given on September 15, 2009 in Las Vegas, NV. The slides from my talk are available online (PDF).

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Last modified: Thu Oct 10 12:47:19 2019.