My take on Wired's Google & URLs article

| 4 min read

Something is surfacing that makes me rather uncomfortable.

Google is rethinking the idea of the URL

I saw a few tweets this week, including this one from Jon Udell which pointed me to a tweet and article on Wired that talked about Google rethinking the idea of the URL. On the one hand, the concept of URLs doesn't belong exclusively for Google to do with as it pleases ... on the other hand, it's not for me to say what they can and can't think about.

Anyway, I read the article -- "Google want to kill the URL", by Emily Waite -- on Wired. At least, I think it was on Wired, I wasn't sure because Chrome was deliberately obscuring the URL in the address bar.

I thought it was worth sharing the thoughts that occurred to me as I read through it, so here they are, in context. I'd encourage you to read the article too, so you can come to your own conclusions. My thoughts are just that - thoughts, opinions, based upon nothing much except what I've read, mind you. Note also that some sections that I quote are directly from the article's author, others are quotes from other people interviewed for the article.

Quotes and comments

" Chrome looks ahead to its next 10 years, the team is mulling its most controversial initiative yet: fundamentally rethinking URLs across the web." --- There's definitely a very good chance it will be controversial - look at the "origin chip" idea that surfaced a few years ago; from what I surmise, the "origin chip" idea is nothing compared to the size of the rethink I'm getting a feel for.

"...Uniform Resource Locators are the familiar web addresses you use every day. They are listed in the web's DNS address book and direct browsers to the right Internet Protocol addresses that identify and differentiate web servers." --- Nope, not quite. The hostname part of the URL is what that is, not the URL itself. I'm not sure whether I should be relieved or worried at this inaccuracy. Relieved because it suggests the article isn't entirely based on solid research, or worried because of the dangerous conflation of two distinct things: fully qualified hostnames ("" is the example given in the article) and URLs. Dangerous, because it only serves to add fuel to the "rethink" fire.

"In short, you navigate to to read WIRED so you don't have to manage complicated routing protocols and strings of numbers." --- Again with this conflation. Stop it, please.

"As web functionality has expanded, URLs have increasingly become unintelligible strings of gibberish" --- On what basis is this statement made? I've been around the Web from the beginning, and use it daily. This statement is nonsense.

"[URLs] combining components from third-parties" --- What? This makes no sense whatsoever. Is it just a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to inject a vague notion of unease in the reader?

"And on mobile devices there isn't room to display much of a URL at all." --- This is being presented as a problem, even though earlier in the same paragraph the problem was that they were too hard to read anyway. How does that logic work?

"it's difficult for web users to keep track of who they're dealing with" --- This is not related to the length or complexity of URLs, it's mainly related to the establishment of the server origin.

"it’s hard to know which part of [URLs] is supposed to be trusted" --- Most people I know don't find it hard, and isn't this what the various secure symbols are for?

"in general I don’t think URLs are working as a good way to convey site identity." --- Of course, that's an opinion, so we must read that as "I don't think URLs are working as a good way ... for me" (the quotee, Adrienne Porter Felt). It's not my opinion - I think the opposite.

"So we want to move toward a place where web identity is understandable by everyone—they know who they’re talking to when they’re using a website and they can reason about whether they can trust them. But this will mean big changes in how and when Chrome displays URLs." --- If that how and when is different to the current state (i.e. "always", right now), then the situation will be worse, not better.

"the problem doesn't have an easy answer" --- Could it be because it's not actually a problem, and therefore an answer doesn't make any sense here?

"even the Chrome team itself is still divided on the best solution to propose" --- This tells us a lot about what's going on here, perhaps.

"I don’t know what this will look like, because it’s an active discussion in the team right now" --- That's good, and I hope that discussion is open and remains open.

"That’s one of the challenges with a really old and open and sprawling platform." --- Ah! There we go. I was wondering when it would appear. FUD in all its glory.

"everyone is unsatisfied by URLs" --- Nope. Wrong.

"They kind of suck" --- Nope, they don't.

"Google paused the origin chip rollout" --- I wonder why? Could it be because there was strong feedback that it was a bad idea?

"the team faced a lot of pushback for its HTTPS web encryption initiative" --- Too right! I don't always agree with Dave Winer, but on this topic, he makes a lot of sense.

"But you make a change and people freak out. " --- Err, yep - of course they do, if it's not a change that's fully thought through.

"community scrutiny of any proposal Google puts forth will be crucial" --- This is super important. I know this is just the beginning, and the engineers are talking about ideas, which is more than fine. I hope for everyone's voice to be heard, and that everyone concerned expresses their opinion.

On that point, I've tried to make a start here.