This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

What Is the Open Web and Why Is It Important?

What is the Open Web?

Folks toss the term "Open Web" around a bunch, but what exactly is it? Is the Open Web HTTP, HTML, JavaScript, etc., or is it something deeper? Rather than a laundry list of technologies the Open Web is a set of philosophies. These philosophies include: Notice something very important; at no time above did I bind the Open Web to a particular set of technologies. Today the above philosophy is instantiated using a particular set of technologies, including URLs, HTTP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. However, if we define the Open Web in terms of these technologies, then we risk losing sight of what makes the web special and being able to have the intellectual nimbleness to evolve the infrastructure of the web. For example, we can and should evolve better layout languages than CSS, better document formats than HTML, etc., especially if we want the web to survive as a long-term social institution and public good, similar to the electricity grid, public-water systems, etc. We will be fighting yesterdays battle while allowing new, proprietary technologies to take over if we focus on technologies rather than philosophy. If we take the long term view, how can we give the web an open enough infrastructure to evolve over time and meet each generations needs, while maintaining its structure enough to actually mean something and stay true to its promise, similar to the U.S. Constitution?

Why does the Open Web matter?

The Open Web is like something from an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction story: its a globe spanning, hypertext network containing billions of documents, conversations, and applications, used by a huge cross section of society. Who would have thought it ever would have been successful or stayed as open as it has? It's not controlled by any one government or company. Our historical closeness to the web creates a kind of myopia, where we can't see how amazing it is. It's a billion Library of Alexandria's dropped into our laps.

Douglas Engelbart, father of much of what we have in the computer industry, including the mouse, hypertext, and groupware, thought that computers would become as fundamental to humanity as the development of writing and language have been. Language is probably only about forty-thousand years old, while writing is only about eight-thousand years old. If you pull back and take the larger view, the web and computers are part of a grand development playing out over decades around new tools for communication. Writing and language have fundamentally changed our sense of self, with positive and negative ramifications; computers and the web hold the same promise, though it will take decades for this to play out.

If the web and computers hold this promise, its important to keep the resulting system as open and accessible as possible. Do we want a system that devolves into something like Ancient Egypt, with an authoritarian force controlling and centralizing the water supply? Many archaeologists believe that deep control of access to water, literally something required for life, lead to the longest known authoritarian civilization in history, lasting for thousands of un-broken years. For example, what if the pencil and paper had never escaped the grasp of the Church? If we can keep the open web nimble and open, it can set the stage to fuel further innovations and inventions, just as writing and language gave rise to books, social polities, etc.

How Can We Support the Open Web?

If we agree that the Open Web is important, how do we create a way to update the web and keep it relevant? The U.S. Constitution, for example, includes special provisions to evolve itself and stay relevant. Even with its warts, the U.S. is now the world's oldest and continuous republic.

The web's existing update mechanisms just don't work. It takes years for new features to go from proposal to show up across enough browsers to be used consistently; this is a recipe for fail if we want the web to exist as a long-term entity, rather than a one-hit wonder.

I joined Google to help with a project known as Gears. Gears is an open source plug-in that teaches current web browsers new tricks. Gears is a clever way to raise the bar cross-browser and cross-platform, today, running inside of Firefox and Internet Explorer on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. No more waiting years for features to show up across all browsers and platforms.

I want to look back five years from now and say that I worked with the community to build an open source update mechanism for the web. Why can't we rev the base infrastructure of the web much quicker, plus create more robust, open extension points along the entire web stack, ala Greasemonkey? Is Gears the answer to this? I'm not sure, but its the best answer we have today. Gears is a great way to get the conversation started, plus get HTML 5 out to today's browsers.

On a more prosaic level, Gears gets the following features into today's browsers without waiting years, ready to use by web devs right now:
[Disclosure: I work with the Gears team]

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