UBIO have been automating the web since 2013. Our technology has been buying things and delivering information from websites for all this time. Our Automation Cloud was deliberately built to facilitate online connectivity. In this article I thought it would be interesting to explore why we think web connectivity is a vital component of tomorrow’s web.
The disparate, unconnected web
Websites are for humans, right, and web services are for machines? By necessity we see this slightly differently. Web services cover only an extremely partial corner of the useful internet. Much of the rest of it still relies on a real, live, human actor clicking and browsing, choosing and selecting.
All the way back in 2006, the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, began talking about ‘Web 3.0’ – a new generation of the internet where machines could understand and interpret the content of web pages, derive meaning from their content and act and assist the humans that they were primarily designed for. The more popular term for this was, and remains, the semantic web. The future was to be a world of machine interpretable documents. Just as human readable pages built the web, the power of content understandable and connectable by computers would bring far greater scope and possibilities to the technology.
The W3C published standards for creating the semantic web. Developers were to mark-up their previously human only HTML with microformats that would provide semantic meaning to the information they contained. Back in those days ontologies were the mechanisms for describing the structure of knowledge held in your online content. The author worked for UK.gov at the time when open data and ontologies were all the rage. Machines could then interpret this new world wide web, easily follow connections, and intelligently reinterpret and reconfigure information. It was a great idea and an honourable ambition.
Only it never happened.
Fourteen years later, what do we have? We have what we always had – Websites for humans and a few, usually proprietary, APIs and web services in niche markets.
To be fair, there is partial interoperability. Let’s take a quick example. In the travel industry Global Distribution Systems (GDS) allow many travel agents to conveniently serve booking data from multiple suppliers. While you search for your next trip on an online travel agent a GDS is cranking away behind the scenes delivering a deal for this route and that. Most airlines list their inventory on one or other GDS, so there’s good coverage. These travel APIs demonstrate the power of machines churning through data to deliver the information we humans desire.
But it’s expensive. The owners of GDS systems are information gatekeepers and they charge a healthy fee for all that heavy lifting. As a traveller, on average you pay $16 on top of the fare for the privilege of this helpful machine interoperability.
Meanwhile the airlines themselves still supply prices to their own websites. That’s why you often get a better deal going direct. But it’s a pain being a mortal human. Would you perform the same search on every possible airline? Aggregated knowledge is extremely useful. But machines tend not to be able to interpret the web pages on those airlines. (Well, UBIO’s can, but I’ll come on to that in a moment.)
GDS and other connective web services like them serve the travel market. Is there even anything close to GDS for, say, retail? No, there isn’t. Neither is there for insurance or financial products. I don’t know about an API for theatre listings. Or for cinema. There’s not a known one for broadband, or mobile phones.
Suppliers usually list on marketplaces to achieve aggregation, or on their proxies, the affiliate networks. And even if they do that there’s usually no way for suppliers to actually perform the transaction where they list. They direct you back to their website to tap in your credit card details to do that. It’s partial machine operability at best.
Perhaps you find it reassuring, but websites – those central repositories of information and where you go to complete a transaction – are essentially for humans only. Poor machines don’t really get a look in.
Online assistants are the future
It’s time to look into our crystal balls. We have a long-running conversational thread at UBIO about the future of the internet and about assistant technology in particular.
We’re strong believers in the future of online assistants. To be clear, we don’t only mean the Alexa listening to you on your bookshelf or Siri in your phone, though these are great tip-of-the-iceberg examples of what’s to come. We mean a general, assistive layer that can help you do what you want to do wherever you happen to want to do it.
This assistive layer might be on your phone, in your car. It might connect to the POS system in the shop you’re visiting. It could still be in the corner of your living room and it might be waiting for you in the plane’s entertainment system on the trip your calendar automatically booked for you. It’ll know your preferences, your habits. It’ll inhabit any interface you happen to be near. It’ll know what you want before you ask for it. It will know and combine every shop, service and supplier. It’ll be your ever present helping hand.
But wait. Where will your assistant of the future be doing all this for you? On websites … obviously. That’s where all the services live.
Too bad they’re only useful if you’re human.
The actual future
Websites aren’t going anywhere soon. We don’t expect web developers to suddenly embrace semantic metadata. Web pages will still be made primarily for humans. More APIs or standards might appear, but they certainly won’t cover everything. We do expect assistants to be doing everything I just spoke about. So what gives?
UBIO’s technology can already be trained to interact with anything. We mainly automate websites, but we can integrate against APIs too. Human-only interfaces can already be loaded in our Automation Cloud and acted upon on behalf of the user. They can do the simple job of listing prices, and they can go through the whole transaction and pay for the thing you order.
Our platform, Automation Cloud can do whatever web developers designed their pages for your human self to do. UBIO technology already successfully books hotels on Google, flights on KAYAK or arrange loans on Clearscore. We plan to release our tools so any developer can connect whatever online service they need to their own technology, or to whatever other service they can think of. UBIO can connect any service on the web.
The future of the internet depends on computers interoperating with any online service, whatever the interface. UBIO provides the connective plumbing between them all. We deliver connectivity for our clients now and we’re certain web connectivity will be an essential component in the internet of the future.