Why the Open Web Matters

Twenty years after its creation, the open web seems to be facing some of its biggest challenges and its survival may make the whole difference between a world where a few large companies have most of the control or one where anyone is afforded the opportunity to innovate online.

Definition: What I mean by web

It appears that, as time moves on, many people have different definition of the web. Some look at it as a substitute for the word internet, others look at it as the sites that are sitting at a web address. My definition is a little more technical: to me, the web is a system that serves up HTML, CSS, and Javascript over the HTTP (or HTTPS) protocol.

Under that definition, it means that Facebook or Google cannot be seen as “the web” any more than iphone or android phone apps are.

Definition: What I mean by Open

Open is another tricky word to define.

Some people look to open as interoperable. To those people, an open web only exists when a site or page is accessible by everyone without requiring any kind of extra registration. In those people’s views, sites like Facebook are not open because they require a username and password to access them.

To others, open means that it can be accessed by all. Those people look to country firewalls or bandwidth caps as examples of the kind of restriction that keep the web from open. To some, as long as access to the internet is unfettered, then the internet remains open.

A third camp looks at open as relating to open source, meaning that the underlying code can be viewed and reviewed by anyone who so chooses.

When he created the first web browser, Tim Berners-Lee added one small world-changing (and I’m not using the term lightly here as you will see later) feature: View Source. This item, which allows any web browser user to pull up the HTML source code of any pages on the web. 20 years later, view source is still available in most web browser, still allowing anyone who cares to examine the HTML, CSS, and Javascript code that compose most of the interactions with a website. Some of the best web developers in the world initially learned their craft through this component and it is still one of the best way to learn how web pages are built.

In my view, the last two items are what represents open. Unfettered access AND ability to look at the innards.

Today’s world

Much of the interest around the internet field centers on two factors: social media and mobile access.

In the case of social media, people look to the ability to leverage one’s offline or online connections to augment the value of an application. In that sense, services like Twitter, Facebook, Zynga and Foursquare have created applications that would not be terribly interesting without people and their connection.

In the case of the mobile space, Apple has launched an explosion of access through mobile devices that was then followed by Google, with its Android operating system. When it first introduced the iPhone, Steve Jobs asked developers to develop for the web, telling them that it was the best way to interact with the iPhone. However, the next year, he introduced the App Store and asked developers to start looking at developing native applications for devices running what came to be known as iOS.

Google followed suit, pushing developers to develop for their own operating system, Android.

The net result is that a lot of companies have developed applications that are running exclusively on those platforms, bypassing the web altogether.

An open web

Proponents of the open web, however, did not rest on their laurels and introduced html5 and css3, a set of changes to the building blocks of the web that can make it easier to developers richer, more interactive applications. Modern web browsers (ie. those that came out since 2010) tend to have some form of support for those changes.

Because html5 represents an evolution of html, css, and javascript, it goes without saying that the view-source element that Tim Berners-Lee had added to browsers 20 years ago can still be used to see how particular things were implemented.

To date, however, few of the startups that have committed to developing applications for mobile devices have leveraged the power of html5.

Why an open web matters: Education

For a generation, web developers have learned their craft through a tradition of enforced sharing: the open web, through its view-source ability, allowed anyone who wanted to learn how to develop like the masters to study their code and, in some case, mimic it before evolving it in their own way.

This has created a virtuous cycle, where good ideas are evolved and bad ones fall by the wayside. It’s also made it an interesting challenge as the ability to learn from the basic code has also led to people copying the code.

Why an open web matters: Evolved business model

The net result of such copying can be businesses that are basically xerox copies of an original. However, if you believe that the web is only but a component of a solid business offering, then copying of one’s website would not necessarily result in a total copy of a business.

If your business is so sensitive that making a xerox of your website will kill it, it is not yet a viable business. So the web, because it equalizes code forces businesses to improve themselves by building business advantages that are not fully dependent on the code. This is a good thing because it results in more reliant businesses.

Why an open web matters: Accessibility

The open web is generally easier to make accessible to people with disabilities. HTML, in itself, has certain built-in facilities that make it simpler to create sites that can be used by people with disabilities. Text-readers can actually read web-pages and/or interact with some web applications.

Furthermore, today’s web can often be backward compatible, meaning that older generation web browser can still interact with a lot of the content that is published there or deal with experiences that may be a little degraded compared to the latest offering but still working. For example, one can use gmail on a browser from a decade ago. That’s a testament to how endurable an open web can be, that it can be used on devices that stopped being produced BEFORE an application was made.

Why an open web matters: Freedom

Recently, the Financial Times decided to implement a web version of their app, leveraging html5 to bypass restrictions enforced in the Apple app store. The decision was hailed by many as a sign of things to come because it presented a rich offering outside of the traditional Apple ecosystem.

At a recent conference, someone said (and if you remember who it is, please tell as I couldn’t find the exact quote) that developers are essentially captive of the platforms they develop on. As a result, any changes in that platform and a developer could find his/her livelihood or product endangered.

Why an open web matters: Shaping the agenda

But no one owns the open web, as a result, few changes to the underlying platform can endanger web-based products. So it may make business sense, as a hedge against some of the things that could happen on a closed platform, to develop a business that runs on the open web as well as running as an app.

Last but not least, when it comes to freedom, is the ability to help influence the agenda.

If you develop for iOS or Android, most of the decisions as to where the OS is going are being made by either Apple or Google. If you develop for the open web, most of the decisions are being made by Apple, Google, Microsoft, the Firefox foundation, and Opera. As a result, it’s more likely that one of them will support new features in the open web as a business advantage. With 5 major players, there isn’t one that has a chance of becoming dominant for very long. By comparison, with 2 major players in the mobile market, it is likely that the community doesn’t get as much of a voice in shaping the agenda.

Business decisions vs. intellectual purity

Of course, I hear people dismiss the argument. They might say “But Tristan, if you are so enamored with the open web, why is your company, Keepskor, designing for platforms that are not open?”

It may indeed seem odd that I would tell people the open web matters while at the same time developing on some of the more restraining platform. However, I’d counter that argument with two simple statements:

  • First of all, open and closed is not a binary issues. In our case, we will be offering an html5 version of our product to serve in parallel to the Android and iOS client.
  • Second, intellectual purity is a fine thing but, as a businessperson, I must make decisions that benefit our business and our shareholders. To go with an open-only product would be to limit the markets we can reach and that’s just short-sighted, from a business standpoint.

At the end of the day, it’s a tough dilema that most companies have to face. I first highlighted it the challenged faced by iOS developers before Keepskor existed and it seems it’s a challenge that still presents itself. The way I look at dealing with this challenge is to develop a web-based version of our tools that provides similar, if not exact, functionality to our iOS and Android clients. To do so is not just a matter of openness, it’s also a decision that makes business sense because it gives us a platform to support all the devices for which we do not offer a client. As such, it maximizes our market exposure at a relatively inexpensive extra cost. And THAT makes total business sense.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched 6 companies, of which 2 (internet.com and Earthweb) went public and two were sold (Net Quotient and MoveableMedia). My latest, Keepskor provides tools allowing anyone to develop mobile and connected TV games without writing a line of code. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.