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The web may not prevail

Regular readers will know that I’m a strong believer in open standards.  I think they provide the best platform for innovation and are the best protection against monopolists.  Hence I would love it if the open web prevailed, and the rising power of gatekeepers like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and even Google annoys me as a consumer and worries me as an investor.

The future of the web has been the topic of much debate since Forrester CEO George Colony predicted the end of the web and an era of the ‘app internet’ in his talk at Le Web earlier this month.  Fred Wilson, Mark Suster and others came out in defence of the web, but it seems to me that the commentary has been largely one sided.  Perhaps that is unsurprising given that as VCs and bloggers most of us have benefited hugely in the past from the open web and stand to continue to benefit into the future.

However, even though the open web is better, it won’t necessarily prevail.  In a great post last September Joe Hewitt set out why.

Firstly, at the most basic level the web is just a collection of protocols and languages.  It has no unique characteristics that assure it a permanent place in our information architectures:

The HTML, CSS, and JavaScript triumvirate are just another platform, like Windows and Android and iOS

Secondly, there are plausible non-web visions of the future:

I can easily see a world in which Web usage falls to insignificant levels compared to Android, iOS, and Windows …. The Web will be just another app that you use when you want to find some information, like Wikipedia, but it will no longer be your primary window. The Web will no longer be the place for social networks, games, forums, photo sharing, music players, video players, word processors, calendaring, or anything interactive. Newspapers and blogs will be replaced by Facebook and Twitter and you will access them only through native apps. HTTP will live on as the data backbone used by native applications, but it will no longer serve those applications through HTML.

An alternative non-open web vision of the future is one in which access to services is controlled by an oligopoly consisting of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

I don’t come with any solutions, but rather with a request that we all remain open to a full consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the open web, and of alternative models – there can be no sacred cows.  That way we will have a better chance of preserving what is really important – and that is open and even access to content and distribution for consumers, and by extension for startups.

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  • Tom Hume

    I think there might be another factor here. There’s been a trend in the last 5 years to architect back-end services as sets of APIs exposed using web technologies (HTTP, XML, SOAP, etc). One effect of this is that it’s easier to plug native clients into these APIs. So in a sense the web has become split into presentation-and-function, and it’s the presentation side of it which is threatened by native clients. I can’t see a matching trend which threatens the back-end side of things…

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    How about the trend to more client side apps which go beyond presentation to storage and local processing e.g. Spotify, Evernote, Dropbox?

  • http://shkspr.mobi/ TerenceEden

    I would – sightly – disagree.  When was the last time a client asked you create an application for Windows? Not Windows Phone, but honest-to-goodness XP or above?  It’s too expensive, too complicated, too fragmented to be worth anyone’s while.

    I see the same for Android / iOS / BlackBerry / WP7.  As much as I would love Android to be the one OS to rule them all, I think that we will see 3 – 4 competing platforms.  Who can afford to develop complex applications on four OSes, each with several revisions?  Of course, designing for IE, FF, Chrome, Opera, & Safari is no picnic – but it seems to fail easier.

    Another thing to consider is this: what happens when one of the big service providers fails?  If Facebook (say) suddenly goes bust, decides to charge for a core service, or simply goes offline for a few weeks.  It happened with the PlayStation Network – so I’m fairly convinced it could happen to Apple, Amazon, or Google.

    When customers can no longer interact because a 3rd party service goes down, will that be enough to shunt trends back to “old fashioned” HTML?

  • Tom Hume

    Yup, that too. Worth noting that Evernote uses HTTP and Dropbox seems to use something at least HTTP-ish tho.

    The web as it stands is a kind of icky platform for developing on: 3+ languages (HTML, CSS, Javascript plus anything server-side) and complex enough that people are routinely using metalanguages to generate these (GWT, SASS, HAML). It feels like the web industry has internalised the pain of working with this stuff, but someone joining for the first time has a huge learning curve compared to those going online in the 1990s.

    The web once promised an easier way of building apps, I’m not sure that’s the case any more – the enthusiasm for going native might support this view.

  • http://twitter.com/rjzzleep Reza Jelveh

    I tend to agree with Tom. But actually… a lot of apps are shifting from a soaplike services/proprietry protocols to restlike apis. which i would argue is the opposite of the trend your describing. In short, more http/javascript instead of less.

    Ignoring that, what about xboxonline, ps3, online gaming like World of Warcraft, distributed computing like seti? are they not part of “the web”?

    I like how big names of web2.0 currently are talking about the disappearance of the web. While in fact what they mean to say is the reduction of the web browser as general frontend.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Hi Reza – the more I discuss this the more I think we need definitions. Different people seem to be talking about different things. E.g. – for some the web is all about browser access. Will give it some thought. Tks for the comment.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Is part of the challenge here to take away the pain/flatten the learning curve?
    Which might mean new languages/protocols/standards.

  • Tom Hume

    Yes. I think you can see that happening in a couple of ways: people deciding to do native apps instead of web; and the folks making web development easier. GWT, for instance, lets Java developers write Java code and generates JavaScript programmatically.

  • http://cloudofdata.com Paul Miller

    Part of the issue may well be a flaw in the presumption that “the open web is better.”

    Ultimately, it is. For a multitude of uses, it is. Philosophically, it is. Technically, it probably is.

    But for a given purpose, at a given time, by a given individual, the “app” and/or curated experience tends to be richer, more powerful, prettier, and more fun.

    A lot of those apps and gatekeepers are, at least, increasingly using the standards that power the open web to build their walled gardens… but the walls remain. And a lot of the time, whilst railing against the principle of the wall, we actually quite like the experience that its existence enables the developer to deliver for us.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    I think you have got to the heart of the issue here. The thing we want to avoid is too many walled gardens and the way to achieve that is to make sure the experience for consumers is better outside them – if we can. The key to that is better dev tools, better distribution, and better monetisation.
    Sent from my Android phone using TouchDown (www.nitrodesk.com)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507862838 Simon Grice

    Around 8! years ago there was a lot of excitement about a number of ‘open’ identity standards – including OpenID & Sun’s Liberty Alliance. One view is that we need to focus on the open identity standards as my sense is that it is this that is going to prevent the open web from ‘competing’ with Facebook et al. – rushed thoughts as I’m wrapping presents -.. more in 2012 – merry xmas everyone!

  • http://twitter.com/jorabin Jo Rabin

    The good thing about the Web being open is that it has a generative effect – i.e. resources in it can be used for purposes that the creator/author of those resources had not anticipated and that go beyond their intentions.

    Web browsing is an activity that plays to users’ intentions. It’s up to them what they do with the resources, why they are retrieving them and in what sequence they do so – somewhat guided by the intentions of the creators, for sure. Apps don’t have this property to the same degree. Broadly speaking your use of the resources exposed by an app is constrained to what the author intended.

    Another part of the generative nature of the Web is that though it’s often (or usually) seen as being about visual representation intended for human use, it’s got much wider application than that. The Web ecosystem wouldn’t work without search engines, crawling, aggregation, price comparison … the fact that resources in it don’t have to be “perceived” is an essential component of it working. Not to mention that assistive technologies will become increasingly important in an ageing western world. Use of assistive technologies often involves resources being perceived in a way that goes beyond what authors originally intended.

    For as long as the Web continues to exist as a set of interlinked resources that are open to processing in numerous ways (including Web browsing) native apps can use those resources without actively contributing to the eco-system necessary for their survival. It’s possible that if native apps (or indeed narrow Web apps) become successful enough to damage the Web – then in so doing they will poison the ecosystem necessary for them to flourish.

    [Though it’s not fashionable, I’m proud to have used the word “ecosystem” three times in the above :-)]

  • http://cloudofdata.com Paul Miller

    I remember them! :-) Must be getting old…

    OpenID, at least, is still at work behind the scenes in quite a number of tools. Even things like OAuth serve to smooth the user experience across sites, although I suppose that it’s actually strengthening the position of Facebook, Twitter et al, as they’re the sites with the credentials that we choose to use in authenticating elsewhere.

    Just as with the open web standards, the open authentication standards will need to deliver a user experience that is better/easier/cheaper/cooler than the alternative. And for that to happen, developers (as Nic suggested) need to start doing much more interesting things powered by those standards.

    Way back in the days of Liberty et al, there were a whole heap of projects and proposals, all of which sought to build a canonical pool of identifiers that we could then use in various sites across the web. The problem was that there wasn’t a clear (enough) incentive for many people to bother. And that meant there was no incentive for the big sites to bother. And so the whole thing died, again and again and again. OAuth-type approaches turn that problem around. We don’t join Facebook or Twitter or Google to get a portable identity; but one comes for free, alongside the other benefits we perceive from membership.

  • John

    In this context it is worth also looking at what Amir and his Webmynd team, originally from Cambridge UK but now transplanted to SF, are doing with their new product suite, Forge. I think they will be making more noise around this in January. A lot of smart folks are already using it in closed beta. From their web site : “Forge is a development framework which enables you to create native apps for multiple platforms from a single HTML5 code-base.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com nic

    Hi Terrence – you highlight the risks of dependence on a single player – but the risk is that we drift there before a problem occurs and then when it does we can’t turn the clock back.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com nic

    Hi Jo – great point, apps and closed services like Facebook are biting the hand that feeds them, and clearly they can only do that for so long before the food stops coming. Hopefully a) enough of the open web will prevail to keep everything working, and b) they will be smart enough to see this and share back (Facebook seems to be doing a pretty good job here, even if there are no promises).

    We have a classic free rider problem with no central body that can regulate.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com nic

    One ray of hope is that competition between Facebook, Twitter, Google etc will keep our identities portable and within our control

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Tools which allow developers to publish easily to all platforms will help consumers by making it easier to switch (or rather keeping it easy to switch). The platform owners will keep innovating to keep themselves differentiated though, making this an arms race.

  • Anonymous

    I’m 100% for the open web.  In the meantime, the web does not have to live in the “cloud” only, that is, we can extend the value of the web standard including its protocol, language etc.  For instance, when justified, running web app locally…  Hence, apps based on proprietary “os” or OS “ish” would face serious competition, and not to become a mess of the universe… 

  • Anonymous

    Agree.  One has to have coded enough to come to this observation, imho.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Hi Andrew – powerful browsers seem like the best way forward to me. There will always be some stuff that is better with apps, but most services should be ok via the browser. I agree we are a ways off that yet though. N