what is the web?

Mike Shaver makes some excellent points in his blog post “the high cost of some free tools“, addressing the new crop of “Rich Internet Application” or RIA platforms: Microsoft’s Silverlight, Adobe’s Apollo (and Flash), Sun’s JavaFX etc. versus the “open web” where the platform  is not under the control of a single vendor, but a set of specifications and drafts to define the protocols, recommendations from different groups to define the data formats, and a ton of other RFCs.

We’ve got multiple implementations of the server (Apache, IIS) as well as the client (Firefox, IE, Safari). “The web” ends up (in theory) being the lowest common denominator that you can support with the total combination, although in practice people only care about the top 2 or so implementations.

The so-called RIA platforms like Silverlight et. al. generally try to do an end-run around the client, and typically (if Flash and Java applets are any predictor) use the web protocols like HTTP, but eschew the client-side data formats like HTML, Javascript and so forth, the goal being to capture the client and be the only choice.

Part of the strategy of these “RIA” platforms is surely to lock web hosts, content providers, web developers and users to a particular technology stack, and tools are a big part of keeping the producer side happy, and the point I most resonate with from Mike’s post is that human-readable code and the decentralized nature of the web makes  it possible for “mash-ups”, user-side scrips and styles and so forth (not to mention the humble link) make it possible to put things together in ways the original designer could not have envisioned, that is more useful for the end-user.

However, a point I haven’t seen addressed is this – a large amount of revenue on the web right now is advertising-generated. Arguably many users do not want ads, especially pop-ups or flashing images, or other annoyances. However, with such an open system there’s nothing stopping clients from effectively stripping most ads from content, or showing the user the Javascript code behind your nifty new AJAX application. Pop-up blocking is already a feature in all major  browsers, and more complete ad-blocking software for each is just a Google search away.

That’s one thing these RIAs can offer that an open web cannot; they can embed DRM to make sure that your code cannot be viewed and that ads must be viewed. I am sure that some content providers will surely welcome this. This could also be done in a web browser, and I am frankly surprised that this angle hasn’t been tried yet.

But if you restrict the client this much, is it still the web? I agree with Mike’s assertion that distributed evolution and incrementalism is what made the web great, what made it win. Acting as a true collaborative medium, not passive like radio and television, but really interactive and respectful of the user’s choices is what makes the web great today.

(EDIT – fixed IE link)

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