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?

45 responses to “The Next 6 Billion”:

  1. What Aral said wasn’t to only develop for iOS, or only for Webkit, or only for whatever platform/​engine. He said for modern versions of EVERY browser. And that’s what universality is all about: Not shutting people out because they use Opera, or because they have a disability or because they use a mobile device etc. But EVERYONE can have a modern browser. Even in a really old/​cheap computer. So I don’t think the argument about the children in Africa holds much truth.

    • By: Jeff
    • October 20th, 2011

    Indeed, there are clear advantages to supporting as many browsers and OS platforms as we can. Not by making things more complex, but my making them simpler, and by adhering to an established and well-​​known set of standards.

    Regarding the “famous question” by Steve Jobs that you mentioned at the bottom of your post, I did a quick Web search and couldn’t find that phrase or anything similar to it. Could you please provide some attribution? (I get the feeling that you’re paraphrasing, in which case it probably shouldn’t be displayed to look like a quote.)

    • By: John
    • October 20th, 2011

    Lea,

    to me there is no difference really.

    Because most of the next 6 billion won’t be using “the latest versions of browsers” (does this include opera mini by the way?)

    We can’t possibly know what past or future browsers they’ll be using.

    So, it is essentially saying, if you don’t use “the latest versions of browsers” then too bad.

    • By: John
    • October 20th, 2011

    Jeff,

    I mentioned it is a reformulation. Should it be in a block quote? Maybe not. Fair call

    BTW, the quote is easy enough to find, and perhaps the most quoted I saw after Job’s recent passing

  2. More stuff like this: http://​www​.raspberrypi​.org/ and http://​techcrunch​.com/​2​0​1​1​/​0​9​/​2​0​/​o​r​i​g​o​-​a​-​3​d​-​p​r​i​n​t​e​r​-​f​o​r​-​k​i​ds/ we need tools and apps that are “cheap” and “universal” but also practical and relevant to that unreached group of future internet users…

  3. @Lea,

    I don’t believe everyone can have a modern web browser (no matter which it is). It comes down to extremely poor connection speeds in parts of the worlds, there the time/​cost to download a new version would be really hard.

    There are also numerous companies who block their users from using any web browser they want, and upgrade when they feel like it (the bigger the organization, the bigger the pain).

    I agree that web browser vendors should accommodate for as easy and painless updating as possible, but taking for granted that everyone has the latest is not a realistic approach, in my opinion.

  4. @Lea,

    modern browsers only run on modern operating systems.
    Modern operating systems only run on modern computers.
    Modern computers are only available to a small, richest fraction of the population.

    If your only chance of connecting to the Internet is some really old hardware you can’t have a modern browser, period.

    We can’t take browser version, processor or bandwidth for granted if we really care about reaching the widest possible audience.

  5. This is to the point at hand, so please bear with me for a bit.

    Half a lifetime ago I was personal care attendant for disabled men. One of those men, Herb, had been, prior to his illness, a successful scientist. When I worked with him he was functionally a quadriplegic, with extremely limited use of his limbs. He spent his days in a wheelchair that included controls for doing things like opening his front electronically. He controlled the controls with a pointer he grasped with his teeth.

    I worked with Herb each morning, and the last thing I did each session was to place a book on the tray of his wheelchair, propping it up with a book stand. After I left, Herb would read the book, turning the pages with his pointer. Aside from this, about the only thing he could do until the next attendant arrived was listen to the radio.

    For reasons that should be obvious, Herb took his life one day, with the help of an unknown friend.

    Many later I discovered the web, and as I began to grasp its power, I realized that Herb, had he been born twenty years later, would have had access to the world’s knowledge; he would have been able to actively correspond with the people he loved; he might have even been able to continue some of his work.

    I became a web developer because I fell in love with the idea that the web could change and enrich people’s lives, everywhere, in unimagined ways–even people like Herb, even a person using a bucket-​​of-​​bolts computer in a one-​​room rural library.

    Over the years I’ve recoiled time and again at the recognition that many of peers could care less about such things. However, in recent years I’ve found inspiration in the return, for some at least, and for various reasons, to the web’s foundational principle of universality.

    Thank you, John, for writing this piece and for all your contributions to the web.

    I write this from Brooklyn, New York, on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

  6. Lea: It’s true that the latest and greatest browsers are available even on older desktop computers — but it’s not true of phones. Web use is becoming increasingly mobile, especially in the third world (built-​​in network access, after all). If you’re accessing the web with an older Nokia phone or Blackberry clone, you don’t have a choice in what browser you use. That makes responsive design techniques and graceful degradation more important than ever.

  7. Hi John, great post and a great idea. I read this fantastic post — http://​pieratt​.tumblr​.com/​p​o​s​t​/​7​5​3​7​1​9​1​9​7​8​/​d​e​a​r​-​g​r​a​p​h​i​c​-​a​n​d​-​w​e​b​-​d​e​s​i​g​n​e​r​s​-​p​l​e​a​s​e​-​u​n​d​e​r​s​t​a​n​d​-​t​hat — recently which is kindof along the same lines.

    Are you able to please provide us with some more specific guidelines? Are you talking about getting rid of the idea of graceful degradation in sites and instead building for the lowest common denominator first, making sure it works on older browsers, and then adding the whistles and bells (rather than adding the whistles and bells first then trying to make sure they don’t break the site in older browser)?

    Are stats available on which older browsers these countries are primarily using?

    Do we need to be incorporating support for multiple languages in every site we develop, and if yes are there good automatic tools out there we can drop into every website to do this?

    How do we address budgetary constraints, especially when working on client websites? e.g. a typical site at the studio where I work is always on a fairly tight budget, there’s just no money left at the end for browser testing and CSS styling for IE6 and earlier. Instead we build standards-​​compliant code, make sure it works perfectly on the latest versions of Firefox, IE, Chrome and Safari, make sure the information is still accessible and the navigation usable in anything older than IE8, and then we’re out of time and money.

    Thanks
    Harmony :)

  8. I became a web developer because I fell in love with the idea that the web could change and enrich people’s lives, everywhere, in unimagined ways–even people like Herb, even a person using a bucket-??of-??bolts computer in a one-??room rural library.

    Over the years I’ve recoiled time and again at the recognition that many of peers could care less about such things. However, in recent years I’ve found inspiration in the return, for some at least, and for various reasons, to the web’s foundational principle of universality.”

    Great comment Michael :) You’re not alone there, I’ve always felt the same way. I used to do a lot of web accessibility work for QLD Government, and while it was tedious and frustrating at times I at least felt like what I was doing made a difference, made information accessible to people who would otherwise be left on the outside.

    The web is a great equaliser, giving rich and poor, active and inactive, the same access to information and the same power to have their opinions heard. I think it’s up to us to make sure it stays that way, because if we don’t, who will. Certainly not the business world. We build the internet, we need to become better at shaping it in the interest of everyone, not just the guys in suits with the $ in their hands.

    Harmony :)

  9. […] The Next 6 Billion […]

    • By: Bruce Miller
    • October 21st, 2011

    What annoys me is data heavy pages.

    Old computers will run modern browsers. What they won’t do is cope with memory hungry page design.

    I am using a first series 900Mhz Celeron with 396mb of RAM which I cobbled together from old junk parts when my faster machine bit the dust.

    The machine must be about 14 yrs old (?) but I am quite happily viewing this blog with the latest version of Chrome.

    (I am using a lightweight version of Linux called Lubuntu. It took quite a few hours to download it but it was free as, kind of, was the computer).

    The other thing that is annoying is lack of bandwidth and pages designed by people who think everyone surely has 20Mb connections, at least.

    There has been public gigabit internet in Milan for years but I am sitting here in rural Italy with a 1mb ADSL connection and it’s the fastest I can get. …

  10. […] happy and productive”. The web does not need to compete with other client platforms – its goals are different. “This is a dangerous assumption. The HTML, CSS, and JavaScript triumvirate are just another […]

    • By: Stuart
    • October 22nd, 2011

    As always, a thought provoking article John — I expect nothing less!!! Although, I don’t think the answer is to blindly build all websites for any user on any operating system, on any hardware! These kind of constraints limit the creativity of the web, its advancement and severely hamper the end product.

    As always, I believe it comes down to asking the right questions at the right part of the process (usually before any development takes place).

    Step 1:
    1. What’s the audience of this site?
    2. What is a typical user? (user personas)
    3. What are some typical user tasks?

    These questions help guide a website’s development and give a site the greatest chance of “succeeding” in the marketplace. I know they are obvious questions and many web professionals would scoff at my suggestion that these may not be asked in every project. BUT having worked as a web developer/​consultant/​project manager for the past 14+ years, it still astounds me how often they are skipped over!

    There’s certainly a BIG difference between the demographic (and hardware, OS, browser version, etc) of a:
    A. Teen fashion site
    B. Teacher education resources
    C. Housing department information site
    D. Mobile betting/​gambling site

    Food for thought!

  11. Both sides are right here.

    Neither Aral nor Leah would suggest serving older browsers inaccessible, unreadable websites – right? Users of those browsers just miss out on a few bells and whistles. As long as content is accessible on any given device, the universality of the web is preserved. I only support modern browsers. But I make damn sure my content is legible on a crappy wap Nokia phone.

    This, surely, is the answer.

  12. Folks on older Wintel boxes are likely using Windows XP at best. While they may be able to download the latest non-​​IE browser, they may not even realise they exist, or that there are benefits to using something other than IE.

    We can’t just abandon these folks. MS’ focus on hardware acceleration has made IE8 the new IE6. These are thee people John’s talking about — those forced into a browser ghetto by lack of choice in hardware and lack of knowledge in software.

    • By: quentin
    • October 23rd, 2011

    What ever happened to paying attention to your audience and target market. This talk of the whole web is nice and all, but very few sites actually have an audience or reach that requires a global mindset. I don’t really believe there should be some universal rule about what browsers/​platforms/​technologies to support. That should always be determined on a per project basis. Just like you would not distribute a Spanish language advertisement in a predominantly Korean neighborhood, you should not treat every single project as if it will be relevant to rural India.

    Now, there are always the core concepts of graceful degradation or progressive enhancement, that should provide the best experience to the cutting edge, while still maintaining usability of content for everyone, but there seems to be a trend of ignoring target markets and up front research about what’s best for your audience, in favor of simply supporting everyone, which I think is doing a disservice to your clients and their customers.

  13. +1 Alistair and Quentin.

  14. Nice post! We should strive towards the adoption of the latest technology but we should also consider widening the number of users of the current one. There is that digital divide to close and we won’t put an end to it by only focusing on one side of it.

    Please excuse me the self publicity but I would like to refer you to http://​iswc2011​.semanticweb​.org/​f​i​l​e​a​d​m​i​n​/​i​s​w​c​/​P​a​p​e​r​s​/​o​u​t​r​a​g​e​o​u​s​/​i​s​w​c​2​0​1​1​o​u​t​r​a​g​e​o​u​s​i​d​_​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​o​n​_​9​.​pdf and http://​semweb4u​.wordpress​.com/​c​a​t​e​g​o​r​y​/​s​e​m​a​n​t​i​c​xo/ for related stuff I’m working upon with some other people from the VU at Amsterdam.

    • By: john
    • October 26th, 2011

    As Bruce Miller said, there’s also the problem of data heavy pages. Maybe your website will work on IE6 but it’ll display images, videos, … and it’ll eventually not be available in some places where bandwidth is scarce. So you’ll end up having to do something like gmail where you have several modes (ie basically making 2 websites).

  15. […] comment about universality is part of his larger pushback against what he believes is an alarming trend — developers leveraging the latest and greatest features of a specific web browser at the […]

  16. […] criticism about wholeness is partial of his larger pushback opposite what he believes is an shocking trend — developers leveraging a latest and biggest facilities of a specific web browser during a […]

  17. […] comment about universality is part of his larger pushback against what he believes is an alarming trend — developers leveraging the latest and greatest features of a specific web browser at the […]

  18. […] Nyman The Next 6 Billion – About the importance of the web and making it accessible for as many as we […]

  19. […] topics covered in this episode:Google Encrypts Signed In Search DataGoogle Chrome Hits 200m usersThe Next 6 Billion UsersAdobe Acquires TypeKitOptimal Link Placement For ClicksAmazon Helps Cement HTML5′s Place in […]

  20. […] The Next 6 Billion Users […]

  21. […] and older, no longer a nerd thing, more areas geographically, etc.) So as we march forward toward the next 6 billion people using the web, let’s embrace the unknown by accommodating for […]

  22. […] The Next 6 Billion Users […]

    • By: Ken
    • January 8th, 2012

    I live in Nairobi and can tell you that in rural Africa the 4G internet today is better than it is in rural America.

    The next 6 billion Internet users will be using for the most part 6 billion mobile devices that haven’t been invented yet. But I can guarantee you they will support HTML5.

    So if you develop standards-​​compliant html5 websites with responsive layouts today, your sites will most likely work fine for all the 6 billion users of the future.

    In Kenya today there are 330,000 people accessing the Internet with PCs/​Macs and 13 million accessing Internet with mobile devices.

    The next generation of Internet users isn’t going to be on IE6, they’re on mobile. HTML5 is the ticket.

  23. […] fine folks at .net magazine very graciously asked me to comment on Aral’s piece, because of a response I recently wrote to the tweet that started the whole conversation, outlining Aral’s #oneversion […]

  24. […] fine folks at .net magazine very graciously asked me to comment on Aral’s piece, because of a response I recently wrote to the tweet that started the whole conversation, outlining Aral’s #oneversion […]

  25. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet […]

  26. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet […]

  27. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet […]

  28. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet […]

  29. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet […]

  30. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet users […]

  31. […] (and negative) reactions to that tweet. One such reaction was by John when he published his article The Next 6 Billion. Basically, John wanted to point out how Aral’s tweet was not in support of those Internet […]

    • By: wanyen jiang
    • March 9th, 2012

    this design is very beautiful, I am a designer, Can give more idea for the fan,table fan,and the blade and more about fan.I want to make a friend with the same hobbi

    • By: Gultekin
    • July 20th, 2012

    While I was just skimming the article after being directed, I came across Aral’s tweet and dived more into the subject. I do agree that the upgrades should be made more effective and its’ vendor’s duty to push them but really even in a shiny office of wonderfully civilised people sometimes they need permission to upgrade their software.
    In addition to this not all browser updates comes without upgrading the system. (IE makes everything difficult).

    And going back to the real meaning of it I agree with Alasdair for web to be accessible. Also if you really want to make 6 billion to engage in web, you need to make a content for them to engage. And content shouldn’t just rely on the technology to be engaging. Functions are important, but there is no point serving a Google map for an address when people do not have roads around (extreme example). Though as Quentin pointed out, the content is per project basis too and sometimes content people ought to come from the areas that they need to be serving to make it accessible and approachable. Unless you are a world wide all encompassing, goat insuring company for the shepherds of the world. But how will your service pass behind the luxurious veil of online functionality, that is a question to me.

    • By: sajay
    • August 13th, 2012

    Great article John,
    I agree to you. There are lot of people in the world who are still obsessed with IE6, not only the children in rural India and Africa will miss the new web.

  32. […] Еще одна важная вещь, перед тем, как мы начнем. Важно помнить основополагающий принцип среды, в которой мы работаем — универсальность. А это разработка не только для современных устройств, но и необходимость предусматривать совместимость с устройствами вчерашнего дня и девайсами, которые появятся только завтра. Джон Эллсоп описал, почему этот принцип имеет такое значение в посте «Следующие 6 миллиардов»: […]

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