I am at the Progressive Web Dev Summit in Amsterdam, surrounded not only by my Chromies, but also great web platform folk from Intel, Mozilla, Microsoft, Opera, and Samsung. We are also joined by awesome developers from all over, and it is interesting to note the issues they are dealing with.
One of them asked me “are you on Team Web?” and I had to ask he thought that meant. It came down to:
- Believing in the philosophy behind the Web platform
- Engaging and building to make the Web ecosystem better.
You can argue that most want to just get their job done, and that a thriving ecosystem needs the correct incentive structure. You would be correct, and this is why many of us spend a lot of time trying to help the ecosystem so it can better support the various players within it.
However, it is important to be able to note those who are on team web and thus the incentives that they have versus others. It is hard to talk about this without feeling like there is judgement here, but this isn’t the point. It can help you understand some of the discussions (e.g. meta frameworks using the web as one projection vs. framework that only runs on the web etc).
What is different about the Web philosophy?
In the universe of computing platforms (of which there are few with momentum) the Web has always been special to me due to its open properties. A typical computing ecosystem will have (at least) a triangle of actors: platform (who sets the design? who gets to be an implementor?), developers who build products on top of the platform, and users.
With closed platforms there is often one controlling platform vendor who calls the shots and sets up the incentive structures and rules for the players. Good ones will make sure to take care of developers and users else they may not get too far, unless the platform is SO valuable itself.
We need to rely on competition between closed platforms in a given market to keep the power dynamic intact.
A great example of this was the early gaming console era. Read Console Wars for a reminder of how ruthless Nintendo was at its peak. They not only chose the games, but also the number cartridges you would get! We often complain about the rules of the app store, but this pales in comparison to other closed platforms.
Fortunately, there was room for Sega and others to find their own piece of the market. Being too strict will naturally allow for competition from a more open partner.
If we look at iOS, there were more forces at play. With the iPhone tied to AT&T, suddenly you saw a coalition of the willing; Verizon (and other carriers), Motorola (and other device manufacturers) are out in the cold when Google rocks up with Android. ⚡
Competing closed platforms can work, but you are relying on strong competition without players becoming too dominant.
The Web is an open platform with standards and multiple platform vendors (browsers) working together. To remain healthy you still require that no one vendor runs the entire show, but this is much easier to do with a meta platform. The meta platform has weaknesses, because it won’t be able to jump onto one new capability that is added to one system, but the long term trade off is that you can build experiences that run across more systems. This gives you a diversity in reach, which becomes more important when there are more competing platforms as the cost of rebuilding experiences is prohibitive.
Today, you have a desktop experience that normally means a certain screensize, with mouse and keyboard inputs (touch is already making headway too).
On mobile you have more constraints, whether it be screensize, network, storage or compute.
Fast forward a lil and the inputs will be separated. Screens will be everywhere, with projections onto walls and eyeballs, and sitting on your wrist. The compute and storage may all run from the mixture of you cloud environment and the super computer in your pocket. Voice and gestures will join touch, mice, and keyboards.
We will have to think so differently about delivering our services across all of these. Shits gunna get crazy.
Who will own the dominant platforms? I certainly hope that the Web will be a driving force.
I have been fortunate enough to work for companies that have a strong love of the Web: Google, Mozilla, and even Palm. I have also worked on startups and enterprises where I needed to think in practical terms on what would be best for my customers. This time has been important as it allows me to empathize with those who aren’t driven by platform ideology or philosophy.
Mozilla, as a mission driven organization fights for an open web. They fight for it similarly to someone who may fight for democracy. It feels like the best long term vehicle, yet as die hard as these people can be, they also tend to know its warts in detail.
Opera has always been a fierce driver of the Web, and it has been fantastic to see Microsoft’s recent work and plans. I am so excited to have all of these companies join the Progressive Web Summit this week, and I feel like people are really coming together and pushing the web platform along quickly.
The fact that no one entity owns the Web is what many hold as the most important value.
If you take a look at other single vendor platforms, you can see the differences. As a single gatekeeper, if the platform provider gets enough market share that developers feel like they need to target it, you end up with:
- Charging a developer a percentage to get their experiences into the hands of a user
- A series of rules can be setup, including those that favor the platform vendor, and they can always be changed
- Censorship of content
- A single place for a government to go to sue / get information
It is often the case that platform rules are such that end users don’t even understand them. For example, someone was complaining to me about the new Gboard keyboard last week. They were big fans of it, but mad at Google for not providing voice dictation. You can’t blame them, it feels like a big sacrifice compared to the default keyboard. Why didn’t Google just put that in? It isn’t as though they don’t have the technology to do so?
Technically though, there is no way to access the microphone, so it is impossible for a third party keyboard to offer this feature. You could argue that it may be in the name of security, but these type of systems make it very hard to break into certain services, and the platform owner weilds a large amount of power.
I will always have a special place for Team Web as it embodies a long term experiment that balances the forces better than anything else I have seen. These platforms have such leverage and global reach that it is important to keep that balance working for all.
So, thank you to everyone who self identifies as a member of Team Web, as well as those of you that are doing great work for the Web regardless of the philosophy.