Don’t call me DOM

16 October 2008

Open/Proprietary/Standards in the Mobile Web industry – part 1

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A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to present at Mobile Web Europe 2008 in London, and was asked to give my thoughts on where the Mobile Web industry was headed with regard to open vs proprietary approaches, and the roles that standards would play there.

My slides are available on-line, but I thought I would redeem myself of posting so rarely anymore in this blog by giving a more useful outline of the talk I made.

First, by looking at recent announcements of projects and initiatives in the Mobile Web industry, it seems pretty clear that “openness” is very hype:

  • many handset or software vendors have made their development platforms open source: the Symbian operating, Android, ACCESS Linux Platform, Motorola’s linux platform, the work of the LIMO foundation, the open phone OpenMoko, etc.
  • many organizations in the field also advertise their openness in their names: open handset alliance, open mobile alliance, open social alliance, open mobile terminal platforms, open ajax alliance, etc;
  • the progressive removal of walled gardens from operators is also another sign of a trend toward openness.

But what is really meant by “open”? I’m proposing to define it as a measure of the distribution of control over a product or a process: the less centralized the control, the more open the project.

To take a few illustrations relevant in the Mobile Web industry:

  • for access to content, the closed approach matches the walled-gardens, where operators want to control where their users can go on the Web, whereas in an open Web approach, users are in control, and can go to the Web sites of their choice;
  • for the deployment of applications and services, the closed approach usually relies on locked devices, where operators or handset manufacturers vet what applications can be installed on the users’s device, and thus have control over applications and services providers; on an open platform, conversely, services and applications providers are free to compete among themselves to distribute their applications;
  • in terms of technologies, the closed approach matches proprietary technologies, where the IPR owner of the said technology control the use of the technology through licenses, and/or has exclusive decision rights on the modifications brought to the technology; open standards offer both royaltee-free implementability for developers, as well as a way for anybody to give input and feedback on the technology.

Taking the closed approach is not necessarily done for bad reasons: having a central authority that controls a product makes it much simpler to create a trust model: if you know who controls it, you know whom to blame when and if it goes wrong. Building a trust model in an open environment is a much harder problem, and one that is still being worked out: the problems of phishing, spamming, viruses in the IT world today are illustrations of that difficulty.

It also offers a simple business model: if you control it, you can get paid for its usage. Again, the open approach to making business is still not clear, and the main business model that exists today is to use advertising, which I don’t think is a very rewarding way to make money out of great projects.

Finally, in the case of the development of technologies, developing a new technology behind closed doors is usually much simpler and quicker than doing the same in a committee of people with diverging interests, and with accountability to the public.

So the closed approach has some solid justifications; but I believe that the open approach, despite its difficulties, remains much more appealing in the fact that it offers a much better base for innovation, and removes a lot of frustration that the lack of control creates.

How does this analysis apply to the Mobile Web industry today?

If we look at one of the most visible success in this area, Apple’s iPhone, we’re faced with a fairly closed system: Apple controls entirely the development of the SDK, and once you have developed an application with it, Apple still controls how you’re going to get it deployed. The main window of openness in the iPhone is actually its Web browser, where both users and developers get much more freedom.

In comparison, it will be interesting to see how Android will fare: while Google certainly keeps a strong hand on the SDK development, the entire platform is open source, and the deployment of applications is supposedgly going to be more open as well.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many others mobile projects that are taking the open source / open technologies road – this means that users and developers alike will have more and more options to get more and more control.

And generally speaking, it seems to me that Internet creates a very strong force toward decentralization and distribution of control, and that this force applies naturally to the mobile industry.

This also ties in with the trend of the IT industry toward commodification – as time goes by, bigger and bigger parts of our computer/phone hardwares and softwares are going to become part of the background of our lives; the same way noone cares about the origin of its electricity, or the brand of its plugs, we will less and less care about the manufacturer of our phones, the provider of our softwares.

All of these make me conclude that the Mobile Web industry, as the rest of the IT industry, is strongly headed toward openness; this doesn’t preclude that there will remain closed approaches, and surely they can make good benefits on the fringe of what hasn’t been commodified yet. But the same way Apple went from having a dedicated hardware platform to moving to the platform everybody else was using, I expect that investments in this fringe are likely to remain short or mid term investments.

(second part)

Picture of Dominique Hazael-MassieuxDominique Hazaël-Massieux (dom@w3.org) is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Staff; his interests cover a number of Web technologies, as well as the usage of open source software in a distributed work environment.