Fotopedia Heritage Shows the Web Isn’t Dead—It’s Just Met the App World

The reports of the Web’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Wired has been getting a lot of attention this month for its “The Web Is Dead” cover piece. But, as many observers have pointed out, the article’s central chart, which purports to illustrate the Web’s wane, is fundamentally misleading. Web traffic may make up a smaller percentage of overall Internet usage today than in the past, thanks to the explosive growth of video and file sharing. But absolute Web traffic continues to grow at an exponential clip. It may be wise to wait a few more years before drafting the obituary.

That said, I do think that Wired editor Chris Anderson makes an important and accurate point in the article. “Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display,” he writes. The popular Netflix streaming video app or the Pandora music app for the iPhone and the iPad are oft-cited examples. “For the sake of the optimized experience on mobile devices, users forgo the general-purpose browser,” Anderson writes. “They use the Net, but not the Web.”

That’s a canny diagnosis. In fact, I would go even farther. I think we’re beginning to see the first examples of digital media creations that never really worked on the open Web, but click beautifully into place on touch-based, display-centric mobile devices. Exhibit A is the new Fotopedia Heritage app, released on August 10 for the iPad and iPhone.

Fotopedia Heritage iPad app splash screenFotopedia Heritage is the creation of Fotonauts, a Paris-based company headed by Jean-Marie Hullot. A computer scientist who worked for Steve Jobs at NeXT and was chief technology officer of Apple’s Application Division from 2001 to 2005, Hullot is an avid world traveler and a talented photographer. He started Fotonauts in 2008 with the goal of building a “Wikipedia of pictures” where Web users could upload and share photos and link them to maps and actual Wikipedia articles. Hullot said at the time that he hoped the Fotonauts site would “enable the creation of the definitive pool of images for everyone to contribute to, discover, use and enjoy, covering all areas of human interest.”

In my opinion, Fotonaut’s Web efforts haven’t lived up to this dream. I reviewed the site in January 2009, when it was still being beta tested, and I didn’t see much to differentiate it from other photo sharing communities like Flickr, Picasa, or Facebook. “I get the sense that there’s a broader technological vision behind Fotonauts,” I wrote then. “But little of that is visible yet. I’m hoping that over the next few months, the Fotonauts community will grow to something closer to critical mass, and that Hullot’s team will reveal more of the features that would make Fotonauts into a true ‘photopedia.'”

Unfortunately, even after Fotonauts officially launched its site in June 2009 under the new name Fotopedia, I don’t think the project really came into focus (so to speak). The emphasis of the new Fotopedia was on creating and contributing to encyclopedia articles, often with a geographic theme. A typical Fotopedia article consisted of a Wikipedia article accompanied by a selection of photos, mostly drawn from Flickr, plus a Google map.

Fotopedia -- Plitvice LakesIt was easy to see why Fotopedia relied on Flickr and Wikipedia as sources, since both are full of content governed by the liberal Creative Commons license rather than stricter copyright rules. But with all due respect to Hullot and Fotonauts—which has raised at least $1.1 million in venture financing from the likes of Ignition Partners and Banexi Venture Partners—a mashup of Wikipedia and Flickr is the kind of thing that any Web developer worth his salt can whip up in his sleep, thanks to the open application programming interfaces that make Web content easy to grab and repurpose.

Fotopedia did add some value to the Web’s existing image storehouse. Community members selected the images for Fotopedia and voted for their favorites, and only the top images appeared on article pages by default. The site was therefore highly curated, which definitely isn’t true of Flickr. (I plead guilty to using Flickr as my general online photo backup destination—I put almost all of my photos there, without bothering to winnow out the many duds.)

Still, I just didn’t see a compelling win in the Flickr + Wikipedia + curation formula, when all of the content on Fotopedia was already available just a click away on the open Web. But my opinion changed this month when I got the Fotopedia Heritage iPad app, which is nothing short of astonishing. I now suspect that Hullot saw the iPad coming (not unlikely, given his Apple connections) and that the entire Fotopedia website was designed as a way to crowdsource the creation of the app, which amounts to the world’s coolest coffee table book.

In my June 25 column “26 Apps to Drive Your iPad Wild!” I included one photo app, Guardian Eyewitness, that prefigured Fotopedia Heritage. For the Eyewitness app, editors at the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper scour the best images being created by professional photojournalists and feature one high-definition image each day, usually related to an item in the news. (Yesterday’s image showed a refugee camp for flood victims in Pakistan.) This app’s main selling point is the quality of the photos, but there’s something else too—the images seem more stunning when viewed in splendid isolation on the iPad than they would if they were stuck inside a Web browser on a PC.

My only real complaint about Guardian Eyewitness is that it shows you just one new image per day. Fotopedia Heritage breaks through that limitation—smashing it to tiny little bits, in fact. The app’s organizing theme is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s list of World Heritage sites. There are 911 such sites in 187 countries around the world, most chosen for their cultural, architectural, artistic, or ecological value. The Fotopedia app includes more than 20,000 pictures from the Fotopedia website, covering 890 of the sites.

Fotopedia -- UluruMany of the pictures originate from Flickr, just as on the Fotopedia site. But while the Flickr curation formula falls short on the Web, it’s much more compelling on the iPad, thanks to the “clean interface and seamless interactivity” that Anderson rightly cites as the main advantage of the app model. You can’t get much cleaner than a single, screen-filling, high-definition photograph. (The Fotopedia Heritage screen does have an overlay of buttons, but they go away with the touch of a finger.) And in terms of interactivity, you can’t get much more seamless than a right-flick or a left-flick to change images. (There’s also a pop-up filmstrip menu that allows you to jump between photos. You can call up geographically organized collections of photos, as well—just photos of the Sydney Opera House, for example, or photos from all of Australia, or all of Oceania—and you can open Google maps that show the heritage sites as pushpins.)

The “coffee table book” comparison comes from the way the app encourages casual browsing, and from the emphasis on images, unencumbered by loads of text. But if you’re in a reading mood, each image connects to Wikipedia, to the UNESCO writeups on the individual World Heritage sites, and even to the travel planning site TripAdvisor.

I’ve spent hours with Fotopedia Heritage, and I think tech blogger Robert Scoble’s pocket review of the app is dead on: “I love the app. Why? Because it lets me dream about traveling to places around the world…It’s like a new kind of atlas with thousands of photos at your fingertips.” (If you want to know more about the app and how it was built, I recommend watching Scoble’s 30-minute video interview with Hullot, embedded below.)

In the big picture—so to speak—I think the real reason I’m so fascinated by Fotopedia Heritage is that it represents a happy marriage between “Web world,” with its open, sometimes chaotic culture of sharing and voting and remixing, and “app world,” with its emphasis on sleekness, usability, and control. The Fotopedia Heritage app wouldn’t work without the Web’s interoperability and its power to crowdsource tasks like curation. And the Fotopedia site wouldn’t have as much reason to exist without the app, which represents its refined essence. So, in the end, I don’t think we’re abandoning the Web, as Wired argues—we’re just finding new uses for it.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail, and you can download Pixel Nation, an e-book version of the first 80 columns, as a free PDF file or a $4.99 Kindle edition.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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