This week, the World Wide Web turned 20. And the organization in charge of its future seems to have forgotten about the anniversary, which may leave many to wonder: Do we still care about the web?
In the distant world of 1993, Tim Berners-Lee and CERN introduced an invention and a set of ideas that they did not patent. By relinquishing any intellectual property rights on the invention of HTML, HTTP, and the core architecture of the web, its creators unleashed a global revolution that has upended businesses and governments, redefined our society, and created trillions of dollars in new economic activity.
But at 20, the future of the web is unclear. The rise of apps have given consumers a new mean of consuming content created on the internet. Meanwhile, the W3C, the organization tasked with keeping the web open, is considering ways in which to add Digital Rights Management to HTML, turning the most open standard in world history into another system that will require some level of permission to be used.
Add all these up and you see a web that is increasingly under fire from interests who do not look too keenly on its openness. Add them all up and you also see a technology that is slowly falling out of favor with the consumer.
When the iPhone was initially unleashed, long before there was an app store, Steve Jobs looked to the open web for app development:
The full Safari engine is inside of iPhone. You can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look exactly and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone. And these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services: They can make a call, they can send an email, they can look up a location on Google Maps.
And guess what? There’s no SDK that you need! You’ve got everything you need if you know how to write apps using the most modern web standards to write amazing apps for the iPhone today. So developers, we think we’ve got a very sweet story for you. You can begin building your iPhone apps today.
But today, the web and web apps are increasingly threatened by the rise of apps as the alternative mechanism of distributing content and experience on mobile devices. John Gruber, a longtime Apple supporter, writes on his site, Daring Fireball:
Today, in 2013, even the best-crafted mobile web apps come nowhere near the quality of experience of the best native apps. In fact, with but a few exceptions, the best mobile web apps today still don’t approach the quality of the first batch of native iPhone apps from 2007.
… Websites are just services, and what you see in a browser tab is merely one possible interface to that service. The best possible interface to that service is often, if not usually, going to be a native app, not a web app.
… But most of the [web apps] I use, I do so because they have no native app counterpart, and I wish they did, so that I could use the native app instead.
This presentation of native apps as a better experience of what the internet has to offer is where consumers start leaving off the web. Sure, every smartphone has a web browser but most consumers do not really use it much, preferring the experience of apps over that of the web.
The quality gap is one that the web has not been able to meet for a number of reasons. One can complain about whether Apple and Google are exerting control over their users by requiring that every app be run through their respective app store (and the same is true of the smaller players in the mobile market like Microsoft and Blackberry) but few people look at the issue around web browsing. And when it comes to providing alternatives, those are not allowed.
For example, while there are several browsers available in Apple’s app store, each of them works in the same fashion under the hood because Apple has mandated that the browsing engine for any app running on Apple device use the software libraries created by Apple. Not only that but using a browsing engine within an app has a slightly deteriorated experience compared to the native Safari engine loaded on the device, leading users to think that web apps and web browsers on the iPhones are just not as good as apps.
As a counter to this, the World Wide Web consortium has fallen on to the belief that the solution to this problem is not with the less open systems but with the fact that the web is too open. In a recent proposal called Encrypted Media Extensions, the consortium proposes a mechanism where content would be locked up under lock and key and require approval from the appropriate software and content vendors to be unlocked.
Such an offering would essentially bring video on the web in line with the mechanisms you see on iTunes or the Amazon video store, asking you to give your credit card number every time you want to watch a video. If passed, this proposal would move the likes of YouTube to pay models, asking you to fork over a few cents every time you want to watch an online video.
And while last year’s actions against SOPA drew widespread media coverage, this week’s equivalent protest against DRM in HTML did not get many mentions outside of a few tech blogs, which may point to activists being on the losing side of that fight. Even the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee fails to see the contradiction between his own support of DRM in HTML and his explanation that he did not have to ask for permission from anyone when he created the web.
This may mean that a more closed down path for the web is on its way. In a recent pivot, the Mozilla foundation has moved away from its original mission of creating an alternative web browser to focus on providing a mobile operating system that will serve as a different distribution platform for apps. At 15, the browser that popularized the web is slowly fading into the distance, displaced by priorities more focused on delivering the internet experience through apps, a tacit acknowledgment that consumers are moving away from consuming the web through a web browser, one that still allows every user to look under the hood and see how the web is built.
So, on its 20th anniversary, the web is at a crossroad: one path leads to a more restrictive system, one that is in line with what mobile device vendors now offer with their app stores, with greater control and more insurance of quality from a few gatekeepers; the other continues on the existing path of openness that was open 20 years ago but one that may be less crowded than it was at its peak in the late 2000s.
The result will be easier continued access to an open internet and its related opportunities, along with challenges in terms of threat management or a more restricted but safer world. Think of it as the difference between visiting a large city in a foreign country or going to the Disney version of that city at EPCOT Center and you will get a sense of which side you may want to sit on.