Web, InterruptedJun 8, 2011 By Joshua Allen
The Web is an eternal débutante. Since 1995, when Marc Andreessen predicted that the Web would make Windows and Linux obsolete, people have presumed that Web standards would become the client platform of choice. Instead of just Web pages, the Web would be used for applications. For those who love the Web, the last 20 years were an emotional rollercoaster. Every few years, it looks like Web standards will finally be crowned Queen of the ball, but then something happens to dash our hopes.
Microsoft took the first steps, introducing DHTML and Active Desktop in 1997, and AJAX and HTML Applications in 1999. When the Internet bubble burst in March of 2000, momentum faltered. Many developers and investors became convinced that the future belonged to proprietary platforms. Investment flowed into alternatives like Java, Flash, and .NET.
By 2002, AJAX began to rise again, and the “Web 2.0” movement predicted the imminent victory of Web standards. But now Flash was the plugin of choice and looked increasingly hard to beat. If Web standards were going to win, it was hard to see how.
Apple as Grey Knight
Hope first came with the iPhone. When the iPhone was released in 2007, there was no SDK for developers. Steve Jobs reassured the developer community: “You don’t need an SDK. You should be developing all of your apps using Web 2.0”. Web developers rejoiced! Web standards finally had a foothold, at least on phones. But it wasn’t long before Apple introduced the App Store with a proprietary SDK, and no support for apps written in Web standards.
Apple pulled the same stunt again when the iPad was released, saying that HTML5 was more than enough to make up for the lack of Flash. Still stinging from the bait-and-switch of the iPhone, some developers pointed out the gaps in iPad’s support for HTML5 applications. Two years later, the App Store does not offer first-class support for Web client applications for iOS devices.
Google launched the Android Marketplace in October of 2008, supporting only Java apps. Once again, the Web got short shrift. Google softened the blow by announcing ChromeOS a year later. ChromeOS was to be a brand-new operating system, built on Web standards. While Apple decided on a proprietary model for iPad, Google assured us that their future tablets would be based on ChromeOS with Web standards at the core.
But things didn’t happen that way. There are now more than 100 different tablet devices for Android with no Web-based tablet in sight. On phones, Google doubled down with Java. Google inked deals with Mediatek and MStar (who make the chipsets for 75% of the world’s cheap feature phones) to base their chipsets on Android. Before the Mediatek deal was done, Android already outshipped iPhone in units, so the combined numbers are staggering. It’s ironic that Palm’s WebOS was quietly dying on the vine, killed by the flood of iPhone and Android units, while Apple and Google were shipping proprietary platforms and paying lip service to Web standards as a platform.
Will Web standards always be an also-ran? Are Web developers forever stuck in the world of Web pages, forced to switch to proprietary frameworks to build bona-fide applications?
Frameworks like Sencha and PhoneGap are working hard to fill the gaps, enabling you to build applications using HTML5 and CSS3, which you can package up to look like native Android or iOS applications on tablet or phone. These frameworks provide shims between the Web browser and proprietary platforms, so you can build apps instead of just Web pages. But third-party shims are always in a precarious position. Not only are they at the mercy of the platform owner’s app store policy, the platform owners are investing exclusively in competing alternatives. When the company that controls the operating system is placing all of their eggs in a Java or Cocoa basket and can eliminate your distribution at any time, you shouldn’t bet on your Web standards shim ever having majority.
So, what’s your take? Are major platform companies brazenly pandering to Web standards to lure people to their proprietary platforms? Or do they sincerely believe the talk about Web standards and are simply waiting until the platform is mature? Will we see a day when all major platform companies invest in Web standards as their primary application platform? And more importantly, should the Web win?