I saw Sir Tim Berners-Lee talk the evening of the 30th of January; you may know him as the man who invented the World Wide Web.
Sir Tim is a vocal proponent of openness. We got to hear a bit of the story around the creation of the initial web software, about convincing CERN to promise to never charge for using Web technologies. I got to see the passion in his movements, in his voice as he told us about those early days, about open source, about the contribution he made and how far it has come.
It made me think of the Scott McNealy quote1 I love; Sir Tim advanced the language of computing, gave us something far, far more. A contribution that I would one day love to make, as well.
Most importantly, his talk gave me a greater understanding of the ideals of the Open Web.
Firefox Dev Day
You may also remember that I went to the Firefox OS Dev Day here in Wellington. It was a fun event, but not without its flaws.
Mozilla and the Boot2Gecko initiative are really putting forth the Open Web platform; an idea that was repeated several times during the presentation. Don’t write closed apps, don’t keep reimplementing the same concepts in slightly different code.
Keep your content on the web, usable from any phone or browser. The technology choices work towards this message, trying to push back against an increasingly appified world.
Initially, I thought this a bit of sour grapes; Firefox has long since lost position to Chrome, surpassed in speed and marketshare, and the rise of iOS and Android are signaling the demise of more open desktop platforms as the common computing device.
By pushing the Open Web, Mozilla can struggle back towards relevance. Or so I thought.
The Deeper Message
Hearing Sir Tim pointed out a deeper message for me, regarding the Open Web ideals. Aside from just a weird VM with a weird language and backwards-compatible warts, Sir Tim posited that the loss of the Open Web is losing the ability to converse, the ability to share the things we find interesting.
An interesting article in a magazine app? We can’t share it easily, can’t tweet it or email it. We can’t talk about what we thought while showing the article to others. The insular nature of modern services makes conversations exist in an echo chamber, where only those who use that service can participate, instead of the entire Web.
Worse still, the app silo segments along privilege, and the Digital Divide grows worse. When you need a $2400 smartphone in order to even begin to participate, a great many voices are immediately silenced.
If privacy concerns keep out out of a service, that’s a further segmentation. Add a financial barrier to conversation, like App.net’s, and we exist in tiny worlds of like-minded voices.
Once I heard Sir Tim, once I understood what Mozilla is trying to do, I realised that it wouldn’t be particularly equality-serving for me to segregate the world by spending power, by device ownership.
Native applications have their place; mobile browsers still don’t have full access to underlying hardware. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what it means when we don’t allow open use, if we close off voices that have a hard enough time being heard.
I want a world where our discourse is always ours, not restricted by arbitrary fences. I want a world where I can always be challenged, and always respond.
I want a world of conversation, without lines of “You must be this rich to participate.”
I think the Open Web serves those goals.
At the very least, it’s worth thinking about and worth talking about.
I’ve had a couple of comments about how phones aren’t $2400, and I’d like to address that point.
$2400 is based on the Total Cost of Ownership, instead of the immediate price of a device. In New Zealand a subsidized iPhone plan starts at $80/mo, over a 24-month term. The handset’s up-front cost is still NZD$550 - a lot of money.
The AT&T online store makes it hard to tell, but I think that, with a USD$200 iPhone 5, one still needs to pay USD$85/month for service.
Vodafone New Zealand offers the iPhone 5 “free” with a NZD$140/month 24-month contract.
The Nexus 4 is, in the USA, quite cheap; USD$350 for the higher-capacity model. In New Zealand, I was able to purchase a Nexus 4 for NZD$800, still off contract.
These are huge sums for people who aren’t already well-off; even maintaining a pay-as-you-go plan is can be a significant monthly cost.
I also feel that there’s a bias towards the newest and shiniest; that we tend to drop support in our applications quickly. Android has some prevention around this, due to fragmentation and vendor incompetence, leaving developers needing to support older versions explicitly, and for a very long time.
With iOS, new versions of the OS get immediate, huge uptake. Older phones that would’ve been a hand-me-down or a cheap purchase for a disadvantaged person, lose support.
Adding the Open Web as the “app store” model enables people who can’t afford to buy a new smartphone outright to participate, encouraging diversity in the conversation.
And that’s a good thing.