Hope

Cennydd points to an article by Ev Williams about the pendulum swing between open and closed technology stacks, and how that pendulum doesn’t always swing back towards openness. Cennydd writes:

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

It’s true. I catch myself saying things like “I believe the open web will win out.” Statements like that worry my inner empiricist. Faith-based outlooks scare me, and rightly so. I like being able to back up my claims with data.

Only time will tell what data emerges about the eventual fate of the web, open or closed. But we can look to previous technologies and draw comparisons. That’s exactly what Tim Wu did in his book The Master Switch and Jonathan Zittrain did in The Future Of The Internet—And How To Stop It. Both make for uncomfortable reading because they challenge my belief. Wu points to radio and television as examples of systems that began as egalitarian decentralised tools that became locked down over time in ever-constricting cycles. Cennydd adds:

I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse.

Of course there is always the possibility that this time is different. It may well be that fundamental architectural decisions in the design of the internet and the workings of the web mean that this particular technology has an inherent bias towards openness. There is some data to support this (and it’s an appealing thought), but again; only time will tell. For now it’s just one more supposition.

The real question—when confronted with uncomfortable ideas that challenge what you’d like to believe is true—is what do you do about it? Do you look for evidence to support your beliefs or do you discard your beliefs entirely? That second option looks like the most logical course of action, and it’s certainly one that I would endorse if there were proven facts to be acknowledged (like gravity, evolution, or vaccination). But I worry about mistaking an argument that is still being discussed for an argument that has already been decided.

When I wrote about the dangers of apparently self-evident truisms, I said:

These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.

That’s my fear. Only time will tell whether the closed or open forces will win the battle for the soul of the internet. But if we believe that centralised, proprietary, capitalistic forces are inherently unstoppable, then our belief will help make them so.

I hope that openness will prevail. Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.

Margaret Atwood was asked about the futility of having hope in the face of climate change. She responded:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Judicious hope. I like that. It feels like a good phrase to balance empiricism with optimism; data with faith.

The alternative is to give up. And if we give up too soon, we bring into being the very endgame we feared.

Cennydd finishes:

Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

This is where we differ. Today’s fair value exchange is tomorrow’s monopoly, just as today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s tyrant. I will fight against that future.

To side with whatever’s best for the end user sounds like an eminently sensible metric to judge a technology. But I’ve written before about where that mindset can lead us. I can easily imagine Asimov’s three laws of robotics rewritten to reflect the ethos of user-centred design, especially that first and most important principle:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

…rephrased as:

A product or interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.

Whether the technology driving the system behind that interface is open or closed doesn’t come into it. What matters is the interaction.

But in his later years Asimov revealed the zeroeth law, overriding even the first:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

It may sound grandiose to apply this thinking to the trivial interfaces we’re building with today’s technologies, but I think it’s important to keep drilling down and asking uncomfortable questions (even if they challenge our beliefs).

That’s why I think openness matters. It isn’t enough to use whatever technology works right now to deliver the best user experience. If that short-time gain comes with a long-term price tag for our society, it’s not worth it.

I would much rather an imperfect open system to a perfect proprietary one.

I have hope in an open web …judicious hope.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Jeremy Keith

RT @julien51: A piece on @ev’s pendulum by @adactio adactio.com/journal/8735 Even further than “judicious hope”, “self fulfilling hope”. Let’s build it.

Mufeed Ahmad

RT @julien51: A piece on @ev’s pendulum by @adactio adactio.com/journal/8735 Even further than “judicious hope”, “self fulfilling hope”. Let’s build it.

Elaine Nelson

RT @julien51: A piece on @ev’s pendulum by @adactio adactio.com/journal/8735 Even further than “judicious hope”, “self fulfilling hope”. Let’s build it.

Kevin Marks

RT @julien51: @ev I would love to see @adactio’s post (adactio.com/journal/8735) linked to yours on #Medium. Webmentions support? cc @dpup

# Posted by Kevin Marks on Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 at 3:28pm

James Bell

RT @julien51: A piece on @ev’s pendulum by @adactio adactio.com/journal/8735 Even further than “judicious hope”, “self fulfilling hope”. Let’s build it.

# Posted by James Bell on Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 at 5:55pm

thelocalyarn.com

There’s been some more noise among web writers and bloggers about the threats faced by the open web1. Chris Dixon likes to imagine there’s a pendulum of fortune that swings back and forth between favoring open and closed systems, but Ev Williams is skeptical (as am I) that the pendulum swings freely in both directions; Cennydd says we will probably have to live with defeat, but Jeremy Keith expresses a “judicious hope” that openness will prevail.

At the end of his piece, Ev says “I’m intrigued to hear what, more specifically, would push things in the other direction.” I’m glad someone is finally asking that question! Because ‘judicious hope’ needs to be validated with specific courses of action. I have some ideas.

Here they are:

Require some high percentage (I’d say 90%) of revenue from targeted online ad sales to be passed through to all end users who are seeing the ads. (Revenue from ads displayed to everyone without any personalization at all — like in a print publication — would not be subject to this.) Make it outright illegal under any conditions (even with consent) to sell users’ data (personal info, tracking, etc) without passing along 90% of the sale to those users. The sale of non-anonymized data should be illegal under any circumstances. Build direct micropayments into the web. Make direct payments as easy and expected on the open web as it is on walled content gardens like the App Store or Kindle store. Remove advertising from its high throne as the web’s default revenue route. For all businesses that allow the public use of their servers to store and communicate information, require them to offer users instant downloads of all their data in one of N approved formats, and to reserve for all their users a set percentage of nonvoting, non-dilutable stock options in the business. The thinking behind these ideas will be filled in with a later supplement. But first, try your best to imagine what the internet would look like if they were implemented and enforced. How would they affect Facebook and Twitter? Online journalism? Blogging services? The entire Silicon Valley startup scene?

I’ll say up front that that these rules are designed to empower small, independent sites and to make certain kinds of huge online businesses unprofitable to run. If implemented, these rules would turn the business side of the web upside down. I seriously doubt, for example, whether Facebook or Twitter would ever have been become what they are now under this environment, or if they would find it possible to continue their businesses if we implemented it now.

They might be great ideas, or not, but they are concrete, suitable in scope to the actual problems, technically feasible, and based on certain first principles. I’d like to see people kick them around and build on them, or at least offer their own proposals (which no one besides Maciej Cegłowski has attempted as far as I can tell).

In all of these posts, we talk about the dangers of “centralization” and the threat of the “closed web” without really defining what we’re talking about. To some extent we need that shorthand because the threat is complex and has a lot of arms and legs; it would be tedious to go into that kind of detail every time. Maciej Cegłowski gave the most complete, historically aware, and eminently readable description of it in a presentation he gave in May 2014. Set aside a few minutes to read it. 

# Friday, April 17th, 2015 at 2:33pm

timkadlec.com

Facebook just announced a new feature they’re calling “Instant Articles”. Facebook is positioning this as a way for publishers to have their stories displayed, within Facebook, “instantly”:

Mobile web articles can take an average of eight seconds to load, by far one of the slowest parts of the Facebook app. Instant Articles provides a faster and richer reading experience for people in News Feed.

Now before we wring our hands too much over this, it’s worth noting that the articles themselves still start on the web. Facebook just becomes a distribution platform. Here’s the exact statement from their FAQ’s (emphasis my own):

Instant Articles is simply a faster, mobile-optimized way to publish and distribute stories on Facebook, and it supports automated content syndication using standards like HTML and RSS. Content published as Instant Articles will also be published on the publishers’ websites.

From Facebook’s perspective this is a no-brainer. It keeps the content within Facebook’s environment, which is one less reason for Facebook’s users to ever leave the app or site. In addition, we have numerous case studies showing that improved performance improves engagement. So Facebook creating a way to display content—very quickly and within their own little garden—makes absolute sense for them.

What I find interesting is the emphasis on speed. There are a few interesting interactive features, but speed is the selling point here. Facebook is pushing it very, very hard. “Fast” is scattered throughout their information about Instant Articles, and emphasized very heavily in the promotional video.

I’m all for fast as a feature. It makes absolute sense. What concerns me, and I think many others based on reactions I’ve seen, is the fact that Facebook very clearly sees the web as too slow and feels that circumventing it is the best route forward.

Here’s the thing: they’re not entirely wrong. The web is too slow. The median SpeedIndex of the top 1000 websites (as tested on mobile devices) is now 8220 according to HTTP Archive data from the end of April. That’s an embarrassingly far cry from the golden standard of 1000.

And that’s happening in spite of all the improvements we’ve seen in the last few years. Better tooling. Better browsers. Better standards. Better awareness (at least from a cursory glance based on conference lineups and blog posts). Sure, all of those areas have plenty of room for improvement, but it’s entirely possible to build a site that performs well today.

So why is this a problem? Is the web just inherently slow and destined to never be able to compete with the performance offered by a native platform? (Spoiler: No. No it is not.)

Another recent example of someone circumventing the web for performance reasons I think gives us a clue. Flipkart, a very large e-commerce company operating in India, recently jettisoned their website (on mobile devices) entirely in favor of Android and iOS apps and is planning to do the same with their desktop site. Among the reasons cited for the decision, the supposedly better performance offered by native platforms was again a primary factor:

Our app is designed to work relatively well even in low bandwidth conditions compared to the m-site.

Had I been in that interview my follow-up question would’ve been: “Well then, why don’t you design your website to work well even in low bandwidth conditions?” Alas, I was not invited.

But this quote is really the best indicator of why the web is so slow at the moment. It’s not because of any sort of technical limitations. No, if a website is slow it’s because performance was not prioritized. It’s because when push came to shove, time and resources were spent on other features of a site and not on making sure that site loads quickly.

This goes back to what many have been stating as of late: performance is a cultural problem.

While this is frustrating, this is also why I’m optimistic. The awareness of performance as not merely a technical issue but a cultural one, has been spreading. If things are progressing a little slower than I would like, it’s also fair to point out out that cultural change is a much more difficult and time consuming process that technical change. The progress may be hard to see, but I believe it is there.

We need this progress. Circumventing the web is not a viable solution for most companies—it’s merely punting on the problem. The web continues to be the medium with the highest capacity for reach—it’s the medium that can get into all the little nooks and crannies of the world better than any other.

That’s important. It’s important for business, and it’s important for the people who need it to access content online. It’s unfair, and frankly a bit naive and narcissistic, to expect anyone who wants to read your articles or buy from your company to A) be using a specific sort of device and then B) go and download an app onto that device to accomplish their goal. The reach and openness of the web well worth preserving.

Scott Jehl had a beautiful tweet rant prompted by Facebook’s announcement. The one that stuck with me the most was this one:

So yeah, I think any criticism of the web’s terrible performance is totally valid. We can choose to do better, but our focus is elsewhere.

Scott’s right: performance is a decision. We actively choose whether to devote our time and energy to improving it, or to ignore it and leave it up to chance.

Let’s choose wisely.

# Thursday, May 14th, 2015 at 11:54am

www.broken-links.com

I’ve spent a lot of time in my career writing and talking about future web features, from CSS3 to Web Components. But I’ve recently come to realise that, while I still think these features are important, I’ve been missing out on the bigger picture: the survival of the open web. That sounds hyperbolic, I know, but so many articles I’ve read, conversations I’ve had, and behaviours I’ve observed, have led me to the conclusion that the open web, in the form we know it now, is under threat.

The signs are everywhere. A few examples: some of the biggest tech acquisitions of recent years (Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat) are native only or with web as a secondary consideration; Facebook made React Native because the web isn’t sufficiently performant, and App Links to make the web just a conductor between mobile apps; and major Indian retailer Flipkart are closing their Web portal and going native only.

Cennydd Bowles recently wrote Open and Shut, in which he baldly states the situation:

Let’s be clear: the open web is not winning. Today’s most significant tech products and companies are not web-based: they are building on proprietary mobile platforms (I include Android here). The ideas, the transformation, the growth are all happening on the closed side. The talent is increasingly moving there, and the money has long since chosen its allegiances. The open web isn’t outright losing yet, but its goalkeeper has been sent off and there’s a free kick just outside the box.

The web is perceived, for right or wrong, as slow, bloated, and expensive. This is a major problem in developing economies with limited networks, who may be skipping the web entirely:

Many people in India, China, and other parts of the world, where bandwidth is low and slow, and where mobile phones are their one and only computer, have no room for… sentimentality. They may never have experienced the same heyday of the web, so they feel no analogous nostalgia for it as a medium.

The received wisdom is that “open wins”. But, as Cennydd suggests [1], maybe this isn’t always true:

Maybe the Internet had to happen, but it was a one-time disruptive event. Maybe there’s no inevitable pendulum.

While the last few years has seen a welcome focus on performance by developers, I don’t feel that’s enough. For the web to thrive and be successful, it needs to better compete with native apps. That’s not to say that I think native apps are superior, or that everything on the web should be app-like; but native apps have set expectations of performance, operation and interaction for mobile users — and in most cases those expectations aren’t, or can’t be, met on the web.

In his recent article, The Future of Communications Apps is on the Web, Paul Kinlan identified four guiding principles of what native apps offer: presence; persistence; integration; and media access. In terms of features, these very crudely map to: being installable; having at least minimal offline support; sending and receiving notifications; and giving access to the contact list, photo gallery, and camera [2]. So if we accept that this is what’s required for mobile web apps to offer a comparable experience to native apps, this is what mobile browsers should be pushing towards.

Google and Mozilla are the two browser vendors with the biggest interest in an open web, although each has different motivation: Google need the web to be open and indexable to achieve their business goals, and an open web is Mozilla’s mission. Because of this interest, each vendor has begun important initiatives: Google’s Project Fizz aims to bring native features to Chrome, and Mozilla’s WebAPI defines many new media and device APIs for FirefoxOS.

Of all the new features being implemented in these initiatives, I’m becoming convinced that the single most important is the Service Worker API. This allows web apps to register background services, an operation that’s critical to empowering the web to take on native apps. Of Paul Kinlan’s guiding principles (above), Service Workers directly offer persistence (through caching) and integration (the Push API), and indirectly offer presence with the Web Manifest and new App Install experience in the latest Chrome|Android.

A competitive web also needs gesture events, finer control over scrolling, Bluetooth, NFC, payments… and everything else that native apps get. But Service Workers are the most immediate and pressing requirement.

Service Workers and complementary features are rolling out in the latest releases of Chrome and coming very soon in Firefox (currently in Nightlies). Of the other major browsers [3], Project Spartan (formerly Internet Explorer) have them listed as ‘under consideration[4] and Safari (more accurately, WebKit) have no indication on their status page. Apple and Microsoft currently treat their mobile browsers as discrete apps rather than providing deep integration with the OS, so it will be interesting to see their decisions.

I still believe in the promise of the open web, but we can’t hold on to it dogmatically. The web must directly compete with native apps if it is to remain ubiquitous and successful. While new features like Web Components are important for the long-term vitality of the web, they’re not the critical technologies right now. And I feel that while I’ve been out preaching them, I’ve perhaps been missing the wood for the trees.

Afterword

It took me almost two months to write this article; it started off as a look at the future of browsers, and developed into this piece about the future of the web. I’ve tended to keep my previous blog posts quite factual, so a long opinion piece like this is a bit of a departure and I look forward to feedback and criticism. I especially welcome any input on the plans of Safari/WebKit for implementing Service Workers or other efforts at pushing for an open web.

Footnotes

[1] Cennydd’s conclusion (paraphrased) is that he doesn’t mind if open loses, as long as we all win. Jeremy Keith disagrees.

[2] I work in a creative technology company, and we receive many client briefs every year that we simply can’t build on the web, for lack of access to device functions such as live camera input (on iOS), Bluetooth, or background geolocation.

[3] I’m not including Opera here as their Desktop and Mobile browsers are based on Chromium and largely follow Chrome, while Opera Mini is a proxy browser and unable to offer Service Worker support with its current architecture. (Thanks to Bruce for the information.)

[4] The Project Spartan team have an open voting system for new features so you can upvote Service Workers.

Related

# Thursday, May 14th, 2015 at 11:16pm