I recently gave a “lightning talk” at Úll, an Apple-centric conference “about building great products”. It was given a day or two before some recent discussions about Google’s experiment with deprecating the URL in the newest Canary build of Chrome. I’ve attached most of the slides and a slightly-edited version of the talk, which was well-received in that I at least got into several arguments about it afterwards with people smarter than me.
Hey, I’m Amit Runchal. I’m building a couple mobile apps right now — one’s a tiny little bootstrapped app we built for fun — basically a really nice way to see movie showtimes and trailers and buy tickets called Movieswing that should be coming out in a month or so. The other one’s a bit bigger and we’re in stealth mode so I’m going to be a douche and not talk about it. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about the web and apps and related technologies recently and I’ve basically got an unsubstantiated polemic in the form of a lot of questions for you.
So I need to define a word real quick before I begin: Truthiness. Truthiness was something coined by Stephen Colbert back in 2005, and it basically means statements that feel true, but are completely unsupported by facts, logic, or reality.
It’s effectively bullshit. And it’s dangerous bullshit, because it doesn’t feel like bullshit. Anyway, I just wanted to throw that word out there.
So let’s talk about the web for a second.
Well, let’s quickly break down the things we’re usually talking about when we talk about the web:
Web browsers, that recognize open web standards. 2. Open source web technologies that power all this stuff.
Now “open” has basically “won” which is why when we talk about the web we’re usually appending the word “open” to it in our heads. The fears of Microsoft implementing their closed standards and protocols are thankfully over. The good guys won. Open standards everywhere! Right?
Wellllllll….I’ve been thinking that maybe what happened is a little more nuanced than that. That we shouldn’t be so quick to hear the word open and stop thinking past that. And the fact that I’m saying that here — well, I’m probably preaching to the choir.
So let’s talk about open source technologies. Well, let’s talk about who’s committing code to these things. Some dude named John Siracusa found a couple charts that showed who was pushing code to WebKit. And the answer shouldn’t have been shocking but it was eye-opening. It was basically Google, Apple, and then a bunch of others (which, by the way, seemed to be roughly correlated with the market size numbers for mobile devices).
So when Google decided to fork WebKit, for whatever reasons they publicly stated at the time, they were effectively forking the future capabilities of a browser in order to implement their strategic vision.
Blink was described as an “inclusive open source” project — which of course, I mean you can smell the bullshit coming off that a mile away, because “inclusive open source” project? What else is open source? Exclusive? And what’s their mission?
This is politics.
Anyway, Google now effectively “owns” Blink. How do you own “open source”? Well, you push the most code to it. Who gives a shit if it’s open or closed if you’re driving the development of a technology in a way that no one else can influence?
And browsers have started to get weird as a result of their ownership. They’re WAY more complicated than they used to be — it’s not just a matter of supporting open web standards any more. We don’t really give a shit about that. They’ll all do that. But Blink was very openly a way for Google to get the rendering engine in line with their strategic vision for Chrome and Chrome OS.
Which is…weird. Because, sure it powers Chrome, the browser, but what about Chrome OS is something that impacts those of us that don’t use Chrome, the browser? And Google wants you to install “apps” using Chrome. They don’t want you navigating to a URL. They want to abstract all that away — because URLs suck for users, they’re garbage. What about that is open? What about that is standard?
It’s not that Apple’s any different. I mean, if you click on a Passbook link…on Safari…on a Mac…logged into iCloud you get something very weird and beautiful happen. This weird modal thing pops up that flies into the cloud and onto your iPhone. It’s gorgeous. That’s not a plugin or an extension or a standards-supported behavior — but it’s an important part of the browsing experience and the Apple ecosystem. And think about the fact that there are essentially two browsers we use in iOS. There’s Safari, and there’s the slightly shittier version third-parties are allowed to use. The reasons Apple did that are completely arguably valid — largely due to security — but they reflect Apple’s long-term strategic vision.
So….the core experience of browsers are starting to feel completely different. It’s great that “open standards” won, but that was last century’s battle.
I think something slightly more interesting is happening this time.
I think what’s happening is this: browsers are starting to reflect the fact that we’re beginning to reduce them, conceptually, to an “app” that’s part of a larger ecosystem. If the “web is an app,” that’s really interesting because it allows us to start asking a bunch of questions. Questions like:
1) What happens when this happens? When the browser starts to be reduced conceptually to an app? A very important app, way more important than “maps” as an app ever was, with a core experience controlled by a single company built for a platform that is part of a cohesive ecosystem and absolutely integral to the long-term success of that ecosystem?
2) How do browsers evolve given that knowledge? How do the owners of the ecosystem want to influence the web to develop? Chrome wants websites to treat themselves like apps. And so does mobile Safari in iOS 7, based on what we’ve seen from Jony Ive. But they’re doing that in totally different ways.
And once you realize that the open source technologies that power the web have been effectively controlled by the companies that benefit most from it, you start asking other questions. Like, what has the “open web” given us? Well, how many search engines are there that matter? How many social networks are there that really matter? How many online book — I mean everything stores — are there that really matter? Who has profited the most from the open web, and how have those profits been distributed?
It seems like there should be more participants than there are, but they’re not. Now, we are immeasurably better of because of Google, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d like it more if we were immeasurably better off because of search qua search. Is search a solved problem? I look at my Google results, and I think…well, it used to be! The information utilities that the web has created seemed to have stifled competition by the very nature of what they effectively seem to be: natural monopolies.
Soooooo….what were the recent arguments against app stores again? When and why did Facebook have to spend ten percent of their market value to buy a potential threat? When and why did Google embark on a corporate freakout of truly epic proportions? When and why have all these massive companies started to feel a little bit shaky?
Look, I’m building mobile products so it seems like this leads to some denouement about where I talk about how mobile is the future and my products are awesome (which, yeah, duh!). But I don’t think that, and that’s not what I want to say. I want to talk about the one true god.
It’s TCP/IP all the way down. I’d argue that if you’re working in tech and you’re a product person, keep that in mind first and you’ll start building some interesting and potentially powerful stuff, whatever medium or platform you’re developing for. We’re largely at the mercy of giants. If we can understand their motivations, we can understand how they move. And if we can understand how they move, we can determine attack vectors, and try to route around them or even take them down — if we want.
I mean unless something else happens that stops us from doing that.