The open web is dead. Get over it and do something.

October 15, 2011 | 8 comments

I and my iPad..Yesterday, I joined the Post-PC era by upgrading my iPad to iOS 5. Yes, the upgrade process wiped all of my applications and data, but once I’d put everything back together again, the result was a faster, more streamlined device that works much better than it did with iOS 4. I use my iPad for most of my non-work browsing; I also subscribe to the New York Times on it and use it as a Kindle. I also love both audio and video podcasts – for example Kevin Rose’s incredibly high-quality Foundation series. Podcasts really came of age when iTunes included subscriptions as a feature, and periodical content like the New York Times can now auto-update. So I figured that now that iOS devices were fully independent, they’d be able to subscribe to, and auto-update, podcast content, right?

Nah. In iOS 5, you can only download podcasts by the episode, and only via the iTunes Store. There’s no other subscription capability. If, as a content owner, you want to give your users the ability to subscribe, you’ve either got to build a native iOS app or ask your users to sync from their computers; either way, you’ve got to have your content approved by Apple (unless you ask your users to paste an RSS URL straight into iTunes). The latter situation is going to become less and less tenable as time goes on. Apple may sell 4 million iPhone 4S devices this weekend; Android is gaining significant market share. The Internet is slowly fragmenting into a series of proprietary (or in the case of Android, semi-proprietary) application platforms.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the reasons. Native apps are faster, have better UI, and tend to provide a user experience that is better overall. There’s a reason that there was so much buzz over Facebook’s iPad app, even though the iPad is capable of displaying Facebook’s full web interface. There’s no sense in being blinded by ideology: for most people, apps are better.

This is a problem. It’s a problem for companies like Google, who depend on web ad sales to make a living. It’s also a problem for the entire web ecosystem – one of the cultural and commercial strengths of the web has been the fact that nobody owns it.

That same strength has become a competitive disadvantage. Joe Hewitt caused a fuss a few months ago by suggesting that web technologies need an owner, and I think at least on one very practical level, he was right:

The Web has no one who can ensure that the platform acquires cutting edge capabilities in a timely manner (camera access, anyone?). The Web has no one who can ensure that the platform makes real developers happy and productive. The Web has no one to ensure that it is competitive with other platforms, and so increasingly we are seeing developers investing their time in other platforms that serve their needs better.

Nonetheless, the ideology is important. Just as the IBM PC eventually won out over the Mac in the eighties, open always wins, and there are countless use cases where an open web makes more commercial, cultural and political sense than a proprietary app platform. However, as Joe points out:

Let’s face facts: the Web will never be the dominant platform. There will forever be other important platforms competing for users’ time. To thrive, HTML and company need what those other platforms have: a single source repository and a good owner to drive it. A standards body is not suited to perform this role. Browser vendors are innovating in some areas, but they are stalled by the standards process in so many areas that is impossible to create a platform with a coherent, unified vision the way Apple has with Cocoa or the way Python has with Guido.

In a follow-up post, he points out that the web has one major thing going for it:

There is, however, one other characteristic that does define the Web, and that is the humble hyperlink. Links are a feature of HTML, but they are not limited to HTML. Links are the connections that give the Web its name, and links are the biggest thing missing from native platforms.

[...] So, my definition of the Web then is resources loaded over the Internet using HTTP and then displayed in a hyperlink-capable client. This definition is liberating. It helps me see a future beyond HTML which is still the Web. I can say now that when I exclaim my love for the Web, it’s the freedom of driving the open Internet in a browser that I love, not the rendering technology. Hyperlink traversal matters. The Internet being global and decentralized matters. HTML does not matter.

This powerful core of information democracy – these interconnected links between resources and people – are what the people who love the web have been protecting. It’s what gives the web life, and the universe of open source projects and standards bodies that Joe tears down have been continuing to build it.

Enter Mozilla, which is obviously worried about the future of the platform:

The challenges ahead of us are very real. Mobile platforms are more closed and more centralized than we have seen in decades. As individuals, we are losing the ability to act on the Web without permission from large, centralized gatekeepers. We are all being tracked, logged, cataloged, monetized and turned into products to be sold. We’re seeing the universal platform of the Web fragmenting back into multiple different worlds.

As the Internet experience is changing, Mozilla, too, is changing. The products and tools that we use to advance our mission are expanding and evolving. A browser is necessary but not sufficient. Equally important is expanding the number of people who understand our values and identify as Mozillians. Mozilla has both the challenge and the opportunity to expand our reach dramatically. We have the ability to bring our values to life in new ways. Embracing these opportunities means embracing change, embracing hope and embracing determination. This is how we will continue to give people ultimate authority over their digital lives.

There are some things to take issue with in this statement – in particular, I think the goal of asking people to identify as Mozillians is questionable – but there’s a great big declaration of intent embedded there, too. Mozilla wants to “give people ultimate authority over their digital lives“, and I believe it’s now the only major player on the web that does.

If Mozilla continues to follow through on this promise, it deserves our support – but this approach doesn’t have to be limited to one organization. The World Wide Web, decentralized and standards-based, created an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and there’s much commercial gain to be had through finding new, open business models and creating open software that harbors commercial ecosystems. For many of us, the ideology and the preservation of the culture of the web is all we need; movements like the Occupy protests have much in common with open source, and could really make use of open communications platforms. For everyone else, it’s important to spread the message that there’s money to be made. Let’s get out there and bring the web back.

Photo by liewcf, released under a Creative Commons license.

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8 Comments

  1. this is all kinda of interesting, as someone who is both very pro-Apple and very much in favour of open standards. I overwhelmingly want the web to be a free and open place – which is the main reason i supported Apple’s anti-Flash stance [though that was more due to Flash being a crash-tastic resource hog than being closed source].
    you mention Android’s market share. Now, this particular metric fascinates me. From the statistics I see reported, looooads of people are buying [or being given] Android phones, but actual *use* of iOS is significantly higher. Factor in the iPads and there’s no contest: iOS kicks the crap out of Android. [indeed it seems the hundreds of people who told me a much better Google tablet would be coming out next month were sadly mistaken]
    Here Google uses the term ‘activations’ as a guide to Android success. I wonder if that isn’t somewhat misleading.
    I also jailbroke my iPhone quite some time ago, and found that aside from a few system tweaks [SBSettings and MyWi] it made almost no difference to my use. When I get home broadband, MyWi will no longer be required, and I really have no idea what iOS5 can do compared to my 4.2.1 on 3G.

    Now, in saying all this, I am a cheerful user of Google Chrome. I use Gmail and GReader and GDocs and GGroups, because they’re all very convenient and do the job. I don’t see the point of using any other search engine, [even though the interface changes have recently become extremely irritating.. is there a good alternative?] and have recently given up on facebook.

    that effectively means my entire web experience is governed by Apple and Google. even on the ubuntu laptop, which I utterly adore.

    this post is making me wonder if I should give Firefox another go, purely because i agree with their ethics.

    I’m also forced to admit, somewhat curiously, that I’m not exactly sure what the open web .is.

    Steven Van der Werf October 15, 2011 (3:40 pm)
  2. I’m confused by the contrast between the title of this post and the content. The title seems to imply that we should “get over” the death of Open as an ideology, the content seems to urge us to fight for it.

    Aidan Skinner October 16, 2011 (5:38 pm)
  3. Aidan: a deliberate piece of semi-misdirection, I’m afraid. I think it is dead, or close to it – but there’s no reason why it can’t be revived.

    Ben Werdmuller October 16, 2011 (6:46 pm)
  4. I’m sure Apple wants us to think that the open web is dead. But beyond the rigidly controlled iOS, iTunes and Apple App Store, things still feel pretty open to me.

    Kevin Jardine October 16, 2011 (10:25 pm)
  5. @Kevin that’s somewhat misleading.
    iOS, iTunes and the Mac App Store aren’t web services, they’re html services.
    In those terms, the Apple web service is Safari, which is free, and is based on WebKit. WebKit is open, and is used by pretty much every decent browser except FireFox.
    Apple released WebKit because they really did not like the idea of being tied to someone else’s web technology – or of anyone else being in the same position [think back to the glorious days of IE vs NN].
    Apple have also been the primary driving force in getting web developers to shift from Flash to html5 by refusing to allow it on iDevices.

    that’s actually a pretty big deal, and the reverse of the opinion you state.

    Steven Van der Werf October 17, 2011 (8:19 am)
  6. Steven, I had thought that it was a truism that Apple was the new AOL. But more successful than AOL ever was in building its own walled community using strict control over the whole stack from gadgets to OS to application delivery mechanisms. Sure looks like that from “outside” the Apple user community anyway. Interesting to hear another view.

    Kevin Jardine October 17, 2011 (12:05 pm)
  7. In an environment where Apple is specifically trying to sell you in-house wares [apps, film, music] they use the walled garden to ensure quality control – both in terms of stuff that’s allowed and avoiding malware / bloat.

    I’m not aware of anyone trying to do the same, successfully, with an open system.

    Outside of that, Apple doesn’t care what you do. There’s little reason they should. Apple won’t make any money out of your browsing habits, any links you click, any information you share. That’s Google and Facebook’s realm to battle over. Apple *does* care that you have a relatively safe environment to do it in, hence Safari / WebKit.

    the rest of the web, the technology used, I don’t know anywhere near enough to even begin having an informed opinion. I can, however, safely assume that people like Ben do.

    Steven Van der Werf October 17, 2011 (2:00 pm)
  8. (And Kevin!)

    Ben Werdmuller October 17, 2011 (2:05 pm)

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