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.

Why HP’s take on WebOS could be a very big deal

February 10, 2011 | 4 comments

Jon Rubenstein introduces new HP TouchPadYesterday, HP finally delivered an iPad competitor I can get excited about, not just by creating an elegant piece of hardware, but by taking a step back and outthinking their competition. Unlike the iPad, the TouchPad is part of a seamless technology ecosystem that also encompasses smartphones, PCs and printers, all running the same operating system and sharing through the same wireless infrastructure.

Printing, file-sharing, synchronization and even charging just work without cables or configuration. It’s clever stuff, and only a company like HP – with well-accepted products in virtually every technology market segment – could have pulled it off. Not only does the TouchPad run their recently-acquired WebOS; so do their Palm Pre phones, and so will their desktops and laptops.

Before the iPad, tablets were a jokey afterthought in the gamut of home devices, largely governed by Bill Gates’s pen-bound vision for how those devices should behave, and Apple’s previous failure with the Newton. With the iPad, Apple turned them into a must-have accessory that made most domestic computing tasks easier. The 3G version beat expectations by eschewing contracts, making mobile Internet use both more attractive and affordable. As soon as it launched, it seemed like a wonderful progression. I love mine: it’s been used to write code, fix servers, write and read articles, read entire novels, watch movies and kill time on the plane. It’s not that I couldn’t do without it. I wouldn’t want to – even despite the crashing applications, slow sync times and horrible iTunes user experience.

But competition in the market is healthy for consumers. It drives prices down, quality up, and gives us all choices. But for some reason, nobody’s managed to provide a satisfactory competitor to the iPad. This may relate to the app store model: because Apple takes 30% of all app store sales, it can sell its devices at a lower margin than its competitors. Android tablets, on the other hand, really need to use the Android Market, which is shared between them – and while cellphone carriers get a cut, tablet manufacturers don’t. That means, for example, that the Motorola Xoom will cost $799 – $300 more than the cheapest iPad. Because everyone expects the Apple device to be at the top end of the market, Android offerings need to be priced below it, particularly when they’re directly competing feature-for-feature. It’s beginning to seem like this might be impossible.

What’s cool about the HP offering is that it doesn’t just create competition: it actually makes the iPad look clunky, which is something nobody else has managed yet. What’s more, they have an Apple-like advantage in their homegrown App Catalog, and by including printers, they’ve brought ink cartridges into the pricing ecosystem, so the up-front cost should be low. The seamless wireless integration between devices makes it perfect for business as well as home use, and WebOS’s reliance on web technologies makes it attractive to developers like me.

That’s the key. It’s not just that I’m excited to use them; HP have made me excited about developing for WebOS devices. Taken in conjunction with Android’s growing dominance, not to mention the rumor of two new iPads before December, it’s going to be a very interesting year.

Photo: Jon Rubenstein introduces new HP TouchPad, by Robert Scoble. Shared under a CC license.

2011: happy new year

January 3, 2011 | 5 comments

sydney habour bridge & opera house fireworks new year eve 2008I’m a little late to the party for end-of-year wrapup / start-of-year prediction posts. Instead, I thought I’d write about some of the things I’m looking forward to playing with this year.

Vanquishing piracy through better business

First, though, I do have one prediction: this will be the year that traditional content producers finally get to grips with piracy. They won’t do it using restrictive DRM and other counter-productive tactics that have been shown not to work; instead, they’ll do it by allowing anyone to buy their content in a convenient way.

The BBC is already talking about broadcasting Doctor Who simultaneously in the US and the UK; they are also planning to release their iPlayer on-demand service internationally. Its US counterpart Hulu, meanwhile, is also planning an international release. All of this is a tacit acknowledgement that a great deal of piracy is the direct result of artificially enforced border restrictions, but it’s also a bigger, more general change: the realignment of incumbent media companies around the Internet, instead of treating it as just another conduit. Just in time to save their businesses – maybe.

The year of the tablet?

Last year, the iPad shook everyone up. It’s a great device, which somehow makes computing a more intimate, human experience – I bought one, and it gets far more use than any other computer I own. (This Christmas, it’s got at least a couple of hours every day from Celia playing Angry Birds.) It’s so good that everyone’s prediction posts for 2011 have been colored by it. Wired; Leonard Lin; Technorati; The Times of India; The New York Times; GigaOm; etc etc etc. I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas next week, and I fully expect tablets to dominate the talk of the town. (Most interesting tablet advice I’ve heard lately: buy a Nook Color and root it to turn it into a fully-featured Android tablet. Not bad for $250, if it works.)

After a rocky start with the operating system, I’m looking forward to developing Android apps. Although I’m still not sure what the platform’s developers were thinking in the early years, the 2.2 release was a major one, and the 3.x previews look pretty good. It’s got a very good chance of being as popular as Microsoft Windows for non-PC devices. Either way, the devices are now exciting enough for me to want to kick the tires and play with some new kinds of social interaction.

Here, my obsession with decentralized models continues. I believe that WikiLeaks represents the Internet beginning to fulfill its true potential, but the furor over it illustrates how dangerous building an information outlet or essential service around a single point of failure can be. The web is decentralized; social, content and information applications should follow the platform’s example.

The couch potato is dead; long live the couch potato

But it’s going to go beyond interaction. With the advent of consumer-friendly devices like the iPad, and living room web clients like Google TV, I think we’re going to see more web apps designed for the couch potato set: people who want to sit down and passively consume content after (for example) a hard day’s work. Right now, even products like the Roku require a fair amount of clicking around before you watch something. Nothing quite has the ease-of-use of television – but apps like Flipboard come close.

Just how do you filter the hundreds of millions of content streams the Internet has to offer so that I see just the right thing when I collapse into my armchair at the end of the day? Could channels, one day, be individually curated content streams, with the content itself sold directly from the producer to us? That would make companies like Apple the new Viacoms and Universals, and make our friends into our TV Guides, with the net result that we will have a much larger range of content available to us, and content producers will have a much easier route to market. I will certainly be playing with this in 2011, from a number of angles.

Getting paid

Ultimately, I think this is the year that analogue content producers – filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists, animators and so on – find a model that really pays for their work online. Once that’s happened, the decentralized, monetized web will be our mainstream source for all content. That means fewer gatekeepers, better content, and a much better information environment for consumers and democracy.

Photo by Hai Linh Truong, released under a Creative Commons license.

Some alternative views of the iPad

April 4, 2010 | 1 comment

Just a quick post. The entire tech sector is ga-ga over the iPad; I’m pretty excited by it myself. But I thought I’d try and throw some realism on the fire by linking to a couple of interesting alternative posts on the topic.

Quinn Norton has some very smart comments about the blinkered vision of the wealthy middle class people who typically assess the impact of devices like this:

I live a really rich intellectual life and get to do lots of things most poor people don’t, and I appreciate that it’s because almost none of my social group are poor. But sometimes my social group kind of goes crazy and forgets that while they have a lot of power, my class is a whole lot bigger than theirs. And none of them will be buying iPads.

Dave Winer has been testing his for a day, and thinks the revolution is yet to come:

Keep dreaming if you want, but if you give the iPad to your mother expect the light to go on for you. At that exact moment you will realize how poorly prepared it is for that. [...] With the caveat that it’s after one day and I reserve the right to change it at any time: Today’s iPad, the one that I just bought, is just a demo of something that could be very nice and useful at some point in the future. Today it’s something to play with, not something to use. That’s the kind way to say it. The direct way: It’s a toy.

I think Dave’s comment – “a demo of something that could be very nice and useful at some point in the future” – is probably prescient. I am excited about the device, and I do want one, but I’m more interested in where this takes the computer industry as a whole in the future. Apple’s devices are famously locked-down (“The iPad is a LEGO set that can only be assembled into what’s drawn on the box,” as Jarek Piórkowski puts it), but the devices that follow it won’t be, although they will learn from iPad’s design decisions.. Specifically, it will bring about three things:

  1. A new kind of smarter, easier, more intuitive portable computer interface
  2. The death of Flash and third party plugins for multimedia content on the web (this is a big deal)
  3. Tacit approval for the industry to innovate away from the traditional PC model we’ve been working with for decades, and create new information appliances that more easily fit into peoples’ lives and can be used in a more human way

Actually, my last point was kickstarted by the iPhone, but the iPad makes it legit: whereas the former was a “mobile device”, the latter is being marketed and sold as a computer in its own right. Many more will follow.

All these devices with different form factors, designs and operating systems will have two things in common: you can take them with you, and they will run HTML 5+ web applications. The future is going to be very interesting indeed.

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