How openness unlocks the web's power

How openness unlocks the web's power

Summary: Accessibility and open standards have helped build the web and remain central to its development, says Bruce Lawson

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Two factors have helped make the web what it is — and their legacy still holds the key to its future, says Bruce Lawson.

The massive growth of the web has been due to browsers forgiving bad mark-up and two vital forms of openness: view source and open web standards.

Many of us who learned to code during the web's infancy did so by finding a web page that did something cool and choosing the view-source option in the browser.

As far back as I can remember, every desktop browser has included a view-source option, which is odd when you think about it: you cannot view the source of a PDF or a Word document.

Read-write environment
Since the original web was conceived as a read-write environment by Tim Berners-Lee, the original Cern browser, named WorldWideWeb, necessarily included the ability to view and edit the source code of a page. Long after the web solidified into a read-only environment, the view-source option survived. The web would certainly have been a very different place without it.

Even young whippersnappers such as web designer Jack Osborne know this, and encourage future generations of HTML monkeys to view source. At the foot of his homepage, you'll find: "Thanks for your interest in the source code. Feel free to look around, it's how I learned. Designed and built by Jack Osborne."

Of course, the source you view is not open source. Unless it explicitly says otherwise, it is the intellectual property of its creator and therefore copyright. But at least you can see how it works and gain a better understanding of the technologies behind the web.

You should not just steal it, although there is nothing to stop you doing that. Long-time web professionals know this fact and are comfortable with it. Attempts to hide source code with reams of white space before it, and attempts to disable the browser's save-image-as context menu option are derided as the fingerprints of amateur developers.

Protecting code
Those who come from different programming environments are less comfortable with it. At a recent talk I gave on developing mobile phone apps with web standards, as opposed to Java or C++, a member of the audience asked: "How can I protect my source code?"

He was horrified by my answer. My response, of course, was: "You can't." I don't know who was more surprised: the questioner, because of my answer, or me because of his reaction.

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But if view-source options encouraged the cut-and-paste hackery that fuelled 1,000 GeoCities sites before blogging platforms such as WordPress and content-management systems, open standards are what keeps the web going.

The main open standards are HTML, CSS and SVG — made by the W3C, with contributions from web developers worldwide — as well as JavaScript, which is maintained by ECMA.

Patent-free
What these standards have in common is that they are patent-free. You do not need to pay a royalty to develop with them and, crucially, they do not reflect or favour the commercial interests of a single vendor or organisation.

A standard such as HTML 5 is developed with input from all the browser manufacturers, mobile handset vendors, authoring tool creators and hundreds of web developers worldwide.

Such open standards take longer to develop than single-vendor proprietary formats, and are likely to be...

Topic: Tech Industry

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