Monday, January 10, 2011

Apple and a Mutant of Web it Creates

Holding an Apple product such as an iPhone or an iPad has been a fashion, let it alone the usefulness of the devices themselves. I am not a fashion speaker. However, what has driven me very excited about Apple is a mutant of the Web Apple creates. Intentionally or subconsciously Apple makes us a web backed by a different thinking. Due to the company's great success in business the thinking has already invaded into the mind of many of us though few might have noticed it. In this post I share my viewpoint about this Apple-created mutant and its relation to the eastern style of thinking we discussed in the last post.

The Web invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was conducted by a classic western style of thinking. The Web was composed of many nodes where each node represents a molecular object. Then there are hyperlinks connecting these nodes arbitrarily. In general every node of the Web has a name (typically a page title) while the hyperlinks are anonymous. This distinction is both essential and crucial. With name a thing declares its tangible intent and identity. Without a name, on the contrary, the intent of a thing is intangible. Therefore, by this design the Web is a world of objects/data and their categorization---the typical western style thinking. The initial Yahoo search was based exactly on this thinking in order to disclose the complete hierarchical structure of the Web, and in the first few years of the Web age the attempt succeeded more or less.

The fallen of Yahoo search and the rise of Google search was a remarkable event in the history of Web evolution. Besides all the other meanings, it tells that the Web had evolved by itself and broken the initial foundation upon the western style of thinking. Google's success showed that it was links instead of categories of the pages that mattered more when sorting the Web. The ones without name were more essential than the ones with name when we explored the topological structure of the Web. If only we think of this discovery once more, isn't the message itself shocking enough?

Then there was Apple.

Unlike Google who sorts and organizes the Web, Apple simply wants to use the Web. Unfortunately, like many other Web-based companies in the beginning Apple might have found that the Web was not very friendly for being consumed. Information on the Web is highly tangled and the traditional thinking of knowledge categorization is too slow to untangle the mess. Unlike an academic research institute, a company cannot wait since money never sleeps! So Steve thought of a solution.

At old days the ancient Chinese had faced the same problem but about the real world. Unlike the more idealistic ancient Greek who were enthusiastic in exploring the world knowledge bottom-up from the foundation, the ancient Chinese were more materialistic (or more practice-oriented; and until now they still are indeed). The ancient Chinese chose a middle-out way to explore the world. Neglecting object categorization and even logic, the ancient Chinese chose the methods of practice be the solution. Once one might have grasped a method of practice, he could apply the method universally to solve the other similar problems in the world. This is a core of the ancient Chinese philosophy. Note that when the "similar" in Chinese's mind is quite different from the "similar" in a westerner's mind. The westerners normally assume "similarity" within a common domain/category while the easterners (especially the ancient Chinese) generally do not have this hypothesis. Due to the difference it is not uncommon for a Chinese character being assigned multiple varied meanings in different (could even be mutually excluded) domains, and it is not unusual to find a Chinese character but with the absolute opposite meaning by simply being assigned a varied context. This type of word interpretation is rare in the western languages such as English, which generally pursue the preciseness and uniqueness on term definition. By focusing on grasping and utilizing the methods of resolutions in contrast to understanding the essence of the causes of problems, the ancient Chinese advanced the civilization faster than the western competitors in the early ages of human society. Apple adopted a similar solution as the ancient Chinese did.

Apple conducted a web of methods. Apple created a space so that people could implement their methods of consuming the Web and publish them. In contrast to selling information, Apple sells information-consuming methods. After buying an App, the users can decide how to use the method and which resources to be consumed. Through the AppStore, Apple creates a mutant of the Web in which the Apps (methods) are the main threads where objects are context.

Apple's methodology brings the company tremendous success in business. Have Apple added more regulation to the Web? Hardly any. Unlike the Semantic Web project, Apple's approach does little help for the Web to become a better organized place. But like what ancient Chinese did, through this methodology Apple gives the layman users the greatest freedom of utilizing their knowledge. In the ancient Greek society, knowledge was only on the hand of the intellects because it was studied in such an academic way. Comparatively people without much knowledge could learn a method and then applied it in their own life through their own human creativity by nature in the ancient Chinese society. It was an important reason that ancient China grew faster than the civilization in the western society. Now Apple cloned the similar methodology in its business.


Without the western style of thinking, we would not have invented World Wide Web. It was the objects and the links that constructed the skeleton and made the Web live. After the Web became alive, however, it is a much more complicated creature than a hierarchical category. Like the real world from which it is imaged, very quickly the virtual world is tangled. It is hopeless to untangle the mess from bottom-up or from top-down within short time of period. In order to facilitate the usage of the Web at this stage we need to borrow ideas from the eastern philosophies. At last, however, we still need the methodology in the western philosophy to finally solve the mess and invent the real science of the Web. It is like that eventually the long-lasting fundamental study in the western society made fruits from which we had the modern science and engineering. By contrast, the ancient Chinese civilization stopped growing eventually due to its lack of the fundamental study of the nature. It was the human history; and it will be the Web history.

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