How openness unlocks the web's power

Accessibility and open standards have helped build the web and remain central to its development, says Bruce Lawson
Written by Bruce Lawson, Contributor

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.

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.

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...

...a mess of compromises to please everybody — and that is the beauty of them. No single company or technology can own the web.

That is not to say that all technologies on the web are open standards. Flash has a wider installed base than Windows, yet it is developed by Adobe alone, which can do as it pleases with it. For example, Adobe recently changed how Flash interacts with JavaScript, thus breaking the SWF Upload project and all sites tied to it.

Web roadblocks
Some closed standards and proprietary formats can be roadblocks to the open web because patent owners can extract money long after a technology becomes widespread.

Those with long memories will recall the GIF patent fiasco of 1994, when Unisys, which owned the patent on the 1977 invention of the compression method used by GIF, wanted to charge people for using the format. The problem was that most people using GIF had no idea the format was patented. But before you rush off in a panic, the patent expired in 2003.

The next generation of HTML is engaged in a battle between open standards and closed formats. According to Ian Hickson, who is editing the HTML 5 specification, it is "in direct competition with other technologies intended for applications deployed over the web — in particular, Flash and Silverlight".

Native video support
One of the most exciting features of the HTML 5 specification is native support for video. If the video is directly handled in the browser rather than by a plug-in, it can be manipulated easily by other web standards — such as script, SVG filters or CSS styling.

The specification originally suggested all browsers would include the Ogg Theora codec, but that offended Nokia and Apple, which worried about 'submarine patents' — that is, patents whose owner keeps quiet until support is widespread and then sues when it is too late to drop support.

Apple's browser, Safari, only supports its own proprietary Quicktime format. Firefox, experimental versions of Opera and Google Chrome carry codecs for Ogg Theora, while Google Chrome also has support for the rival H.264 format.

H.264 has its own problems, though. Patent-licensing requirements mean H.264 codecs cannot be freely redistributed, and the owners have said that in 2010, they will begin to collect royalties from video site owners who use the format.

Plenty of technical discussions are also taking place. Google has said it would not use Theora for YouTube, because "if [YouTube] were to switch to Theora and maintain even a semblance of the current YouTube quality, it would take up most available bandwidth across the internet".

That claim is disputed by Greg Maxwell of open-source multimedia project Xiph.org.

There is also the question of hardware decoders, chips that use much less battery than software decoding. Apple makes the iPhone and worries about the lack of hardware-based Theora decoding.

Such technical debates about the merits of codecs are to be welcomed. We all want the best quality in the smallest space. But I can't help feeling that the development of the web suffers from questions about patents, royalties and terrors over lawsuits.

Interoperable codecs
HTML 5 editor Hickson, after dropping any mention of interoperable codecs from the spec, said he foresaw two, not mutually exclusive, possibilities, both of which will take several years.

First, Ogg Theora encoders will continue to improve and off-the-shelf Ogg Theora decoder chips will become available. Google could ship support for the codec for long enough without getting sued, so that Apple's concern about submarine patents is reduced. Hence, Theora would become the de facto codec for the web.

Secondly, the remaining H.264 baseline patents owned by companies not willing to license them royalty-free expire, leading to H.264 support becoming available without licence fees. In this scenario, H.264 would becomes the de facto codec for the web.

Bruce Lawson works as an open web standards evangelist for Opera. He has been involved in standards and accessibility since 2002. The views expressed in this column are his own. You can follow him on Twitter.

Editorial standards