An Event Apart Minneapolis: Jeff Veen, "How the Web Works"

The final speaker at An Event Apart Minneapolis was Jeff Veen, author of The Art and Science of Web Design, who is also one of the founders of TypeKit, which is bringing richer typography to the web.

Jeff’s session, “How the Web Works,” was described as follows:

Turns out that the fundamental principles that led to the success of the web will lead you there, too. Drawing on 15 years of web design and development experience, Jeff will take you on a guided tour of what makes things work on this amazing platform we’re all building together. You’ll learn how to stop selling ice, why web browsers work the way they do, and where Rupert Murdoch can put his business model.

Jeff’s talk began with beer.

Back in the day, the trouble with having good, cold beer on a summer’s day was ice. Ice was expensive, as it was difficult to store.

A man named Frederic Tudor helped improve the harvesting and shipping of ice. He shipped ice to the Caribbean, to England, to India. Shipping ice made Frederic very wealthy.

Down in Florida, Dr. John Gorrie was studying tropical diseases. He discoverd that keeping the wards cool kept people healthy. He came up with a mechanical device that led to the creation of ice houses. Ice could now be stored for far less money. Away went the foundation for Frederic’s wealth.

As time went on, mechanical ice preservation devices shrunk. Soon, refrigerators could fit in a home. The General Electric Company in New York made fridges. Soon, GE was bringing more than just good fridges to life with their new wealth.

Change in technology changed fortunes.

Jeff then moved on to another tale about the gold rush and how some companies made the transition through a technological disruption.

When gold was discovered in California, as we all know, a big rush of people went west. So did investments from New York.

People soon realized they needed to get across the country to the gold as quickly as possible. And of course, the gold needed to get back east. Two companies pioneered traversing these routes swiftly with horses: Wells Fargo and American Express.

One day, a new invention was discovered, a telegraph. Wells Fargo realized that instead of transferring gold back and forth across the country, they could instead keep ledgers on both sides of the country, secure the money in both locations, and transmit data by telegraph.

Acoording to Jeff, within two days of Wells Fargo learning of the telepgraph, they switched their business model from shipping money by Pony Express to transmitting data about money.

This didn’t go perfectly: a fire burned San Francisco to the crisp, but the gold was still recovered, and their business flourished. They survived technological disruption through swift innovation.

More recently, when you paired computer data with the internet and the MP3 file format, you swiftly saw the complete disruption of the music industry. Before, the music industry held a monopoly on the production of physical objects encoded with music, records, which were non-duplicable. Cassette tapes first disrupted that business model, but digital music took that to another level, as the production of the object holding the music was no longer tied to the information that represented that music.

Another example: fonts. Originally, all fonts were metal type, and like with music, the costs of physical production of that type were tied with the knowledge necessary to create the form of the letters in that font. With computers came digital type and strict licensing of the usage of those files, particularly in connection with commercial printing. Prior to the widespread usage of the internet, the digital form of those files could be more easily restricted.

With the advent of the web, designers of course wanted fonts. However, the early web had only 18 fonts guaranteed to work across platforms. Those whose business relied upon the stict control on the usage of fonts feared that if the digital encoding of fonts was simply set free upon the internet, the loss of that control would also result in the loss of their business model. Potential solutions existed to encrypt font files, but opinions differed upon the best way to deliver those fonts.

In 2007, a variety of factors led to the emergence of a real movement to get elegant fonts onto the web and allow for more beautiful typography. How to assuage the fears of font makers, fearing the loss of their intellectual property? Typekit tries to bridge that gap.

With all of these technological disruptions, the true value of an industry might not be what it seems.

Is ice about shipping? Or health. Is gold about shipping bouillion? Or communication. Is media about printing newspapers? Or having people’s attention. Understand that, and you can understand how to monetize the true value of an industry, even when its technology shift.

Shifting gears, Jeff asked us, how did the web become what it is today? The qualities that contribute to the success of the web make us successful too. We are native to the web.

Two organizations set standards for the web: the IETF and the W3C. Jeff discussed the actual process of how people get together to argue about standards. These arguments are difficult but valuable.

For example, in the early days of the web, Netscape recognized that everybody seemed to want to be able to style pages in a way that separated style from structure. As others at the other time were beginning to use JavaScript, they proposed a similar language for style, which they called JSSS, or JavaScript Style Sheets.

However, as the standards-makers argued, they thought designers wouldn’t like JavaScript errors for design, where one stray semi-colon can destroy everything. That evening, everyone left the office where these discussions were taking place and headed, quite naturally, to the bar. That night, over beer, Netscape and the Internet Explorer team got to talking and brainstorming, and in the morning, they shared a new proposal: CSS.

Jeff then showed us a number of emails discussing how one might embed a graphic within an HTML tag. There were various ideas of how to do this, but one thing was clear: Tim Berners-Lee didn’t want the <img> tag that Netscape had proposed. Well, Marc Andreesen still thought that this was the best solution, so he shipped it in the next browser version. The rest is history.

The lesson here is that consensus can be established by running code. If you can you see how something works in actual code, decisions and a rough consensus can be established much easier.

When Jeff was working on the launch of Typkekit, they came up with some great ideas, and rather than working to perfect them, they put what they had out there and got feedback. The consensus they found helped them decide upon solutions.

Jeff announced that Typekit was releasing an API to allow more programmatic control. Again, their approach is to release a minimum viable product, and then go through intense, rapid iteration after that.

He shared a quote from Reid Hoffman: “If you’re not embarrassed when you ship your product, you waited too long.”

To emphasize this, he showed us clunky, early versions of google.com, thefacebook.com and Amazon (as well a a pretty humorous fake 1980s version of the Apple site).

Twitter is a good example of taking advantage of emergent behaviors. After seeing how people used Twitter, they adopted and made use of hashtags and retweets (of course, I would argue, they screwed up retweets).

So an important principle of the web, Jeff argued, is that “Speed of iteration beats quality of iteration.

Another key principle, he said, is Metcalf’s law, which says that the value of something is equal to the square of its users. Value = users2.

One phone on its own is not interesting. If everyone has phones, you can do some amazing things. For many things, a network effect is required to make things interesting. This is especially true of the internet.

My belief is that FaceTime is another good example of the importance of network effects. Apple alone can’t make FaceTime truly successful. Once FaceTime is available not only on Apple products, but also on PCs, Android, Blackberry and more, then we will see the true value of a video phone.

Another way to put this principle, according to Jeff, is that networks grow in value faster than they grow in users.

Another thing that is fundamental to computers is copying. Obviously, copying proprietary content is illegal. So how do we deal with that?

We often hear the quote that “information wants to be free.” However, the “free” in this quote was intended to mean information’s ability to spready, rather than its cost.

Jeff then introduced two concepts: excludable and rivalrous. If something is excludable, then when a product is consumed, it cannot be consumed again. Something is rivalrous if you prevent access to those who don’t pay.

The examples he used: fishing is rivalrous but non-excludable; satellite communications are non-rivalrous but excludable. Although as I’m thinking about it, it would seem to make a lot more sense if those examples were reversed. Perhaps my notes are wrong on that one.

The trouble is that everything digital is really just binary code. This code is essentially non-rivalrous, as it is so easy to copy something, and non-excludable, as it can be copied as often as desired. All DRM is an artificial constraint.

For example, media companies used to be excludable. They would sell records until they were gone. Then, they changed their model to be rivalrous, charging for MP3s. Ultimately, however, this is an artificial constraint.

So, to sum up, Jeff’s three key principles of how the web works:

  • consensus = code
  • values = users squared
  • information = free.

Jeff then talked about how each speaker at An Event Apart connects with our web culture and how our web works. Unfortunately, he went so fast, I was unable to take notes to capture the insights he shared on this.

He went on to talk about how the web is changing everything. There is a new level of intimacy through all things social. Our connections and memories are being stored on the network. We are creating our own collaborative history. Mobile is bringing a wealth of data throughout the entire world.

Some people want to co-opt this and protect us from the scary web. People like Rupert Murdoch want to clamp down on openness and reduce the distribution of information.

He really slammed Yahoo! for shutting down GeoCities. This was an irresponsible elimination of a wealth of the early web.

Jeff loves the web and hopes we do too, “because we have so much more of it to build.”