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One thing you can always rely on technology to do is speed things up. Everything, from processors to phones to networks gets faster. Heck, there are actual laws that define this phenomenon. So when at a recent Akamai analyst event a speaker made the offhand comment that the Web is getting slower, it pretty much made me sit up in my seat and say “what?”

My first gut instinct was to say “No way, this is technology, things don’t get slower. I used to have a modem, now I have fibre. I used to use a WAP browser for mobile web, now I have fast 4G and LTE connections.” But once that initial instinct passed, I had to admit, it sure did seem that many of my recent web browsing experiences were less than satisfactory from a performance standpoint.

So what’s causing this slowdown? Is it the result of problems in the core of the Internet’s infrastructure? Well, while there have been cases of hardware problems causing Web slowdowns, as well as performance issues caused by political fights between major carriers and streaming video providers, the cause of the Web’s slowdown is actually coming from the other side of the infrastructure.

To find out what was causing the Web to drag, I sat down with the Akamai speaker who had made the comment about the slowdown, Mike Afergan, SVP and GM of the Web Experience Business Unit at Akamai. And he said that the reason the Web is slowing down for so many of us isn’t a problem with the Web itself, but with how many of us now use the Web.

Afergan said, “In technology we typically think about things getting better, cheaper, faster.. And then faster, faster, faster. And that’s kind of just generally our perception. For a given situation, a given hardware, a given connection, a given webpage, etc., things do get better and things have been getting better. But if you just think about how we’re interacting with this thing we call the Web today, it’s so much more situational and as you go through situations, whether it be devices, whether it be cellular, whether it be richer pages, whether it be more congested networks, that you actually see across many situations that the performance numbers are getting worse.”

This means that, as we’ve moved to a world where we are more likely to surf the Web from a mobile device, using a wireless broadband connection, we face the increased possibility that we’ll see performance problems that we wouldn’t see on a PC or laptop. Afergan said that one way to see this phenomenon in action is to look at Web performance numbers over time for both desktop and mobile users. He said, “The last time the desktop metric was as slow as the current cellular metric is, it was ten years ago. Basically, we’ve lost a decade of innovation, by innovating.”

So as we have moved to an increasingly mobile first Web, we are seeing performance issues that bring back memories of modem connection tones and slow dial-up connections. We are even seeing the return of old-school performance tweaks, such as dynamic image optimization and caching. In a mobile first Web, high performance isn’t a given, even with a 4G network, if the user is in an area with poor coverage or interference.

What can businesses who need to deliver Web content to an increasingly mobile user base do to boost Web performance up to desktop-like levels? Afergan said, “I think in the area of performance we all want that one silver bullet, but it’s not quite that simple. There’s no one technology that’s going to  optimize the experience for say, a smart watch on a cellular environment and a TV on a connected environment and a laptop trying to get a SaaS application. Typically your challenge is, if you optimize for one, then your trading off somewhere else. So really the fundamental point is having a framework where you have a variety of optimizations, and then you pick the right ones based on the situation.”

This is the challenge of the mobile web. We all love the ability to access information and rich content wherever we are. And if we’re lucky enough to have a fast connection, this can be pretty spectacular. But sometimes we don’t have a fast wireless broadband connection or access to a strong WiFi signal. And in those situations, surfing the Web can be so slow that you can almost hear the modem screeching in the background.

The Web may not be slowing down from a total standpoint, but in many situations, it sure does feel slower.

For more on this topic, read the Aberdeen report We All Pay the Price for Internet “Hiccups”


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