In late 1995, Yahoo! had just been born and mobile phones had recently shed their pull out antennas. I’d been selling digital ads for just over a year at that point and was being courted by a small MIT Media Lab spinoff called Firefly, which I would ultimately join. Part of the wooing process included several trips to The Lab, where I’d meet with amazing scientists and brilliant, entrepreneurial grad students. I knew they were amazing and brilliant because I understood about every third sentence.
But there was one project that stuck with me over the past 19 years, even though I’ve long forgotten the identity of its developer. I recall sitting in a small windowless office peering into a large monitor, which reminded me of the view from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I had the distinct feeling of hurtling through a galaxy as stars and planets flew past to my left and right. Only they weren’t planets and stars: they were words, phrases, images and brief bits of rudimentary video. This, I was told, would be the future of the web interface; the way we would navigate information someday in the future. A perpetual feed would wash over us and we’d simply grab, sort, file, save and view what interested us with the clicks of a mouse.
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Keep in mind that the web had just been invented less than four years earlier, Google was still a nascent grad school project and Mark Zuckerberg was 11, so this was pretty heady sci-fi stuff. But after nearly 19 years of clicking from page to page to page, it seems like perhaps we’re finally coming around to the vision of that anonymous MIT researcher. And I think it’s happening because of the convergence of behavior and interface design.
Let’s start with the fact that 2014 the watershed year where far more web access comes from mobile devices, specifically those new-fangled, antenna-less smart phones. Page after page after page just doesn’t work for the mobile viewer, and mobile interface design is quickly becoming the default. That means a consumer who’s coming of age today will expect all of his web access to mimic his mobile experience. Enter “Responsive Page Design,” the new school of UI design that presents the desktop web in a long continuous stream of consciousness. (Early examples include sites like ESPN, Quartz and Yahoo! Food.) We’re still not on the bridge of the Enterprise, but we’re getting there.
The question – and the point of this post – is what this all means to the currency of the display web ad business? For two decades we’ve built our financial assumptions on top of lots of clicks generating lots of pages generating lots of ad calls generating lots of revenue. Now, with the consumer enjoying elegant, streaming design and rolling over and expanding what she wants to view when she wants to view it, what will we count? It may seem like an academic exercise today, but it becomes a vital economic question very quickly.