The web faces a serious challenge as a handful of giant companies -- Apple, Google, Microsoft etc -- build closed ecosystems to provide apps for smartphones, instead of developers building HTML 5 apps for the open web. This idea has been a recurrent topic in numerous conversations I've had over the past couple of weeks while writing a 20-page report (PDF) as part of The Story of the Web, Nominet's celebration of the Web's 25th birthday.
However, I got a comprehensive reply from Dr Jeff Jaffe, CEO of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Jaffe explains how the W3C is moving to meet the challenge from apps, and where he sees opportunities for the web to expand in the next few years. This differs slightly from the version in the report, published today, in that I excluded my questions from our telephone interview.
What are the major challenges for HTML and the W3C in particular?
HTML 5 is the next generation of mark-up for the web, and there is unanimity in the industry that that's the right direction. We refer to the current generation of technologies as the "open web platform", and we use the word platform to emphasize the fact that people are no longer using it just for static browsing of information in web pages. It's a platform for building distributed applications, and it's the most interoperable platform in history because everyone is implementing web technology. Being a platform opens up all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable opportunities.
There are certainly challenges along the way. The web is moving to all sorts of different devices -- e-book readers, tablets, set-top boxes, in-car infotainment systems -- and it's a challenge to maintain the "write once, read everywhere, implement everywhere" capability with such a wide range of devices.
The mobile world is going heavily towards apps rather than web-apps. Do you not see that as a challenge?
It's true that a lot of companies are building apps for particular smartphones, but we have a project called Closing the Gap with Native. In many cases, those apps use a lot of web technologies underneath, but there may be a particular function, such as a payment infrastructure, that's not available on the open web. There's been unprecedented rapid innovation on native smartphone platforms in the past few years, and for certain capabilities, we're behind. That's not a surprise -- in general, standardisation cannot be done as fast as innovation -- but perhaps we're further behind than we would usually be. That's a temporary situation, and with our Closing the Gap project, we're putting in the capabilities that are needed for the open web platform.
But perhaps the key appeal of apps isn't so much capability as monetization. Developers are writing for Apple's iOS to make money out of it, so to compete with that you have to have monetization capabilities built into your platform.
Absolutely. As part of that, we're going to have a Web Payments Workshop in Paris to work out a sensible way to have a standard payments infrastructure for the web. It has to handle payments and royalty programmes and things like that. Three or four years ago, there wasn't the motivation to create a web payments ecosystem because apps were just getting started, so that's one of the areas where we are behind. It will not be fixed overnight, but when it is, people will say "well, wouldn't it be preferable to do it once, do it openly, and have your stuff available everywhere?"
What's going to drive the expansion of the web in the next few years?
In industry after industry, people are moving to the web, and I have four examples of that. The first is the whole mobile app ecosystem, which we've just been talking about, which is really a new business area. Another area where we've made tremendous progress is the movement of entertainment to the web, where we have a project on TV that covers streaming, captioning [subtitles], the integration of devices in your home, and so on.
A third example is digital publishing, which the web provided 25 years ago, but it gave you very low quality typography! We're now at the point where we know how to do most of the things needed for the most sophisticated high-end publishing, so we see huge opportunities there. The fourth is the automotive infotainment system, where we're getting more bandwidth to the automobile and more things that people want to do -- such as entertain their children in the back seat. There are other things, too. We see the platform for the web becoming a platform for industry, so there are enormous opportunities for further growth.