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.