The web’s inception was nothing like humanity had ever seen before. It wasn’t planned; it wasn’t an incremental change of an existing system or even a natural development of technology. It was completely new. It began a worldwide revolution; causing an unplanned mass movement because with it being open the possibilities were not defined and the opportunities were not constricted. The philosophy of openness helped it grow rapidly, encourage new ideas, shift markets, reshape industries and redefine all of our lives. This was all driven by human ingenuity and a refusal to settle for one central idea determining the rules of the web.
Openness is important not only for the web and technology but also for the human experience. Open gives us the opportunity to make decisions about our lives and how technology affects us. There are times when we may want a simple experience with determined rules where the decisions are made for us. But there are other situations when we want to set the rules for ourselves or we want to experiment and work to create a better experience. Open provides this ability. Open is critical for the human experience, critical to problem solving.
So for human experience to be open and free, the underlying technology needs to enable it. That is why fighting for an open web is important. The fact is we need choice, if the options or technology are closed the decision has been already made for us and this directly impacts our lives.
The web’s forces against openness
Open vs. closed is a dichotomy in many areas of life, many systems move from open to closed or strike a balance between the two. The web is no different. In the short-term there is sometimes great value, or perceived value, to centralised services. In the long run though, as systems become more closed it becomes very hard to change a system that no longer works optimally. The web is subject to a number of forces – both commercial and governmental – looking to impose control, to crack down on its openness. As we move into a new era of the World Wide Web – one that will be shaped by the shift to mobile and the data explosion – we face a different environment from that when Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) invented the web. It is no longer a purely academic system where open can come naturally but one which is centred on the huge possibilities for societal and economic benefit. With this new environment come new threats to the web’s flexibility and openness.
More mobile, more problems, more opportunity
The world is going mobile. We’re accessing the internet and its content in an environment increasingly defined by a mobile duopoly of Apple and Google and their closed ecosystems and controlled app stores.
Google makes some source code of Android available, but Android is essentially not open. All the APIs are designed by Google, and Google controls the direction of the technology. The source code is available, but often only after products are shipped. Apple has virtually locked down iOS, it is closed and centralised.
Customer experience in a closed environment varies – there are many people that like a controlled experience. However, over time closed systems tend to decline. It is often forgotten that in the early days people loved the integration of Internet Explorer into the Windows operating system. But over time, due to its lack of competition, its development slowed and innovation ground to a halt, as Daniel Appelquist points out in his introduction.
The web was only set free with the creation of the Mozilla Foundation and the launch of the Firefox browser, then eventually other browsers such as Safari and Chrome. This created an environment where people could innovate on the web and led to the further development and creation of platforms such as Amazon, Facebook and Twitter which have come to rewrite the world we live in.
We mustn’t make the same mistakes we made with the desktop with the mobile web – history mustn’t repeat itself. We must not allow the web to be taken out of people’s hands and let it be defined by a few organisations and a limited number of stakeholders.
True innovation is very hard to achieve if you need to ask permission from numerous (or even just two) controlling incumbents. If we’re serious about wanting innovation, which is needed to solve the world’s pretty hefty problems, then we need an open environment on the mobile operating systems, which are the building blocks of our mobile life.
The web in 2020 – data, data, data
As we share more and more information online and our devices become an intrinsic part of ourselves, in most cases following us wherever we may go, we are leaking more and more data about ourselves. The web in the next decade will be reshaped by data and information flowing everywhere in every direction. That much is clear. But what isn’t clear is how the human experience on the web will be impacted by this explosion of data.
We need to feel like we have some control of our online lives, our personal information and our data. The web needs to be a place that is an online home for each of us. But right now we are all living online in a glass house. There is no way of shutting yourself off from the internet companies – they can watch whatever you do, they can track your data and they can use the information they gather to monetise their services.
My dream of the future of the web is an environment that is tailored for each individual. I am talking about an environment where we feel safe and where we can make choices about what experience we want: the levels of safety, how much security, and how much control is imposed on our experience. Mozilla’s purpose is to drive issues like this forward but industry-wide support is needed if we are to build a global technology infrastructure that creates a future web environment with a good user experience.
The vision of the web
The big internet companies have a great responsibility to the web – they represent a huge potential threat but also a great opportunity to its future. Some will, and have, adopted a closed mind set, shutting their platform and properties off and using any means possible – including lobbying and passing laws – to maintain control and ensure others can’t compete. But others have adopted an open philosophy – because it’s in their nature, their leaders’ nature or because it makes economic or business sense. They are shifting because they see the possibilities and are moving into business opportunities that are more based on openness. That requires more creativity as you’re building something new. All of the big internet incumbents have this choice before them.
If we want maximum innovation and flexibility we need an open system. If there are restrictions or the next great idea needs permission from a global set of stakeholders, each with their own agenda and interests, progress will be stifled and the customer experience will suffer. Innovation and creativity can only truly thrive in an environment that is open – that is why the web as a platform needs to remain this way to ensure ideas can sprout and spark the next wave of human progress.
We all, as consumers, have the most influence and responsibility over how the web will develop in the future. Whether it is turning our back on restrictive platforms and services or pressurising governments to take action. We are all citizens of the web – we ultimately define its future.
If you’re interested, here’s my take on the subject in video form.