Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Defining the Open Web

I heard that when asked who knew what the “Open Web” meant at a recent conference, hardly anyone put their hands up. Those that often think that they do understand it, understand it at a gut level.

Brad Neuberg has been thinking about this, and wrote the following asking for our input:

What the Heck is the Open Web?

Do you toss the term Open Web around? Ever wonder what the heck it means? Me too.

I’m looking for a definition of the Open Web that:

  • Isn’t a laundry list of bullet points
  • Is one or two sentences long
  • Doesn’t constrain the web from growing in the future (i.e. that it’s expansive enough that it’s not just defending the status quo but can adapt to new innovations)

I’ve got my own opinions on these but I’m interested in hearing what you think. Basically, what’s the elevator pitch for the Open Web? Its easy to talk to the Converted ™, but what about when talking to other folks that might not care as much yet?

You get bonus points if you can answer the following:

  • If Adobe were to open source Flex/Flash, or Microsoft Silverlight, would that be the Open Web? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Why should developers care about the Open Web? How about users?
  • How would you define the web itself, again in a way that doesn’t constrain it from future growth and development (i.e. “It’s a place to publish a bunch of documents” doesn’t allow room for deploying applications, as we are seeing with Ajax today).

We toss around the term Open Web a bunch, but I’ve never seen it succinctly defined. What is it, and why do we support it? I believe its important and worth supporting but it’s all a bit fuzzy right now.

Posted by Dion Almaer at 12:45 pm

3.6 rating from 29 votes


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One view of the open web is given in a recent talk by Alex Russell of Dojo/Sitepen on saving ourselves from the unweb where he argues that “We are reaching a fork in the road, however, where the web’s traditional strengths may be dramatically eroded by a “hollowing out” of the HTML semantics.” Alex then goes on to talk about how the open web works by strengthening HTML and the “unweb” works by abandoning HTML.

Comment by ctkeene — July 22, 2008

PSSST flex is open source


Comment by V1 — July 22, 2008

Link to Brad’s site is borked. But that’s ok – you copied his whole post anyway.

Comment by codedread — July 22, 2008

@V1: correction…*part* of Flex is open-sourced. But there are components you can’t use without purchasing a license for them.

Comment by ttrenka — July 22, 2008

Flex is not Open Source anymore than ASP.NET AJAX is Open Source or Apple Mac OS X for that matter…
The RUNTIME is STILL not Open Source and until that happens Adobe has it cold hands on top of it controlling everything you do with it…
I think it’s important that you set the agenda for these matters, and I really LOVE the fact that you’ve turned ever since your “pragmatic posting” about Flex about a year ago. THIS is the stuff we want to see…
However I am 100% confident in that most readers of Ajaxian has a pretty clear view of what the Open Web is. But to recap I’ll “bite” and define it ;)
* Using open standards where open standards exists.
* Do NOT extend standards unless you have a water proof reason for doing it.
* Do not “break” standards like adding “special attributes” to your HTML or start ids with anything else but letters or stuff block level elements inside of inline elements and so on. Just because it works today does NOT mean it’ll work tomorrow…
* Avoid Flash, Silverlight and other ActiveX technologies as long as possible and if you HAVE to use them (like YouTube) then at least CONFINE their usage into separate modules easily exchanged by Open Technologies when possible and do NOT use them for what you can use Open Technologies for (most of YouTube is STILL Ajax (JS, HTML and CSS) imagine if the whole site was Flash…)
And most of all; TURN YOUR BACK to technology not being good members of the Open Web! DO NOT BECOME THE ROADKILL OF ACTIVEX TECHNOLOGY!
But if you want ONE sentence then here it is; “Ask yourself if this system will be runnable 150 years from now. If the answer is NO it is NOT Open Web technology!”
Then when this fight is won (soon) we can start fighting for “Open Information” that Facebook and SalesForce etc are making increasingly important for us to win…

Comment by polterguy — July 22, 2008

I’m going to have to call B.S. on this one. Why would you go around using terms that you don’t understand?

I think generally the coining of new terms goes the other way – first there’s a concept. Then you get tired of having to explain this concept from the ground up every time you talk to someone about it. Finally, you come up with a short-hand term or phrase to use as a label for the concept. If it’s compelling, other people catch on and start using it too.

Adobe Flex and Microsoft Silverlight are in no way “the web” open or otherwise. It’s sounds to me like Brad is trying really hare to invent a term that doesn’t need inventing. It’s just the web. It doesn’t need to be redefined.

I would suggest that, since he doesn’t know what the “open web” is, he should stop using the term.

In the end, the user only cares about the content. Whether it’s a web page, a Flex app, a DHTML app, a Silverlight app, an OpenLaszlo app… it doesn’t matter. The content is the important part so just talk about that. By trying to tie the web to a specific technology or specification you are unnecessarily constraining it.

Comment by Igby — July 22, 2008

@Igby: Brad didn’t invent the term. It’s something that is gaining prevalence in certain circles–particularly within Silicon Valley, where a lot of these things gain traction. To call him out for inventing it is somewhat ignorant–though in all fairness it is on the newer side.
However, I can definitely tell you that it is (at least) close to a year old.
And I can tell you for sure that it did not originate with Brad.
ISTM that Flex is sort of “half-open”; Adobe is taking baby-steps in the right direction but is definitely afraid of what it will do to their business model. MS, it seems to me, has gotten into a “we need to do it ourselves, regardless of what’s gone on before” mindset (as well as the hangover of market dominance), and unfortunately it looks like the sobering concoction that is Vista has not entirely woken their collective *sses up yet. Maybe one day…

Comment by ttrenka — July 22, 2008

My definition of the ‘Open Web’: Own your data and control access to it through publicly developed standards.

Comment by VirtuosiMedia — July 22, 2008

I think the question has three answers, depending on audience (tier-1 publisher/container/service provider, developer/service consumer, and end user.

The most concise answer I think is available for developers: To consume other people’s services or source without red tape. As a developer, I want maximum freedom to borrow and mashup.

For end users, I think it’s the flip side. End users care about owning their data, how it is shared, and what privacy rights they have. All trumped by user experience however (yield privacy rights or data ownership if UX is enhanced). This can interfere with the developer’s wishes, when freedom to consume data without red tape interferes with data privacy.

For service provides/top tier containers, I think it’s a hard sell. If you’re a big player, like Microsoft, or Facebook, being truly open is seen as diminishing market power and having a commoditizing effect. If there’s no business model, or if you’re already playing second fiddle to someone else, then you use open standards to try and undermine your opponents. Cynical, I know, but I definitely have seen companies flip-flop their standards support depending on market position. I’m not suggesting Google does this, and every company has their true believers in openness, even Microsoft, but I think selling the dominant players on Open Web is the hardest sell of the three audiences.

Open Web: Your services, the way I want them. My data, the way I want it.

Comment by cromwellian — July 22, 2008

If you heard the name a year ago, then you were late to the party. I myself have used it for way more than a year myself and all though I cannot remember where I found it (if anywhere) I highly doubt I heard from anyone near the valley…
If my memory serve me correct here I think I started using it as a contra word against ActiveX2.0 which I got a lot of problems for blogging about a year back ago which was quoted here on ajaxian. (search for “glowes is casted something”)
ActiveX2.0 I know for SURE i invented as a funny remark around web2.0 RIA Frameworks like Flex and Silverlight…
Though I DO remember the first time I heard someone significant (except me) saying it which was when Alex Russel wrote about the UnWeb and was quoted here on Ajaxian…
In fact if you go that far back in time I was according to the blogs and comments on them, both here and at ajaxwidgets.com mostly ALONE in attacking ActiveX2.0 technology…
But hey, I give a damn about credits as long as people are picking up my opinions ;)
And if it makes it larger by attaching some “big fancy name” or “place” (valley) to it, then go for it ;)

Comment by polterguy — July 22, 2008

@codedread, BINGO. It goes to show you that being able to purchase a domain, come up with a decent idea doesn’t make you qualified to actually operate it. Dion’s post’s are always one or two sentences followed by a complete copy of someone else’s blog.

Comment by seancallan — July 22, 2008

I think ajaxian.com is a great thing. It “filters” good articles written at other people’s blogs for “syndication” in a nice way. In addition Dion gives access to small time bloggers with a good idea a very broad audience. And Dion is a busy man in addition to running ajaxian. Now unless I completely misunderstood your comment I think it was tasteless and rude and not justified at all!
Mostly ajaxian is a great resource which we all follow very closely to get the latest news about the topics we are interested in…
If it sucks, why did you comment?
Why do you read it?

Comment by polterguy — July 23, 2008

@polterguy, copying a person entire post isn’t syndicating anything in a good way. You’ve removed the need for users to actually view the third party blog.

I read ajaxian because the majority of the contributors actually have worthwhile material and they write it themselves. Dion however writes a sentence and then proceeds to copy the entire blog of another developer.

Syndication is one thing, but as you’ll see on posts by Ben and others, they write lengthy articles themselves and provide a link to the third party, this way, if you wish to read the original article you must click the link and proceed. Dion does not do this and instead leeches information.

Compare his posts to others and you’ll see the pattern is quite apparent. I commented because I think what he is doing is wrong and if he wishes to use information from another blog he should do so, but not copy the entire post therefore nullifying the need for users to visit it.

Comment by seancallan — July 23, 2008

“If you heard the name a year ago, then you were late to the party. I myself have used it for way more than a year myself and all though I cannot remember where I found it (if anywhere) I highly doubt I heard from anyone near the valley…”
I actually don’t care where the term came from, nor do I care whether or not I was late to the party; all I cared about (referencing the comment above) was that Brad wasn’t getting called out for trying to invent a term he didn’t invent.

Comment by ttrenka — July 23, 2008

I’m not sure I understand the question. The open web is simple, it is a network of interconnecting technologies and standards which enable the distribution, alteration, and re-composition of information and of themselves. Anything less is closed, period.

I think the question you are meaning to ask is “How much openness should we have on the web?” Which is only a question asked by people who are attempting to close off portions of the web for themselves.

Don’t confuse the two questions. Well unless you are attempting to muddy the water of peoples consciousness so you can sell them your snake oil.

Comment by mojave — July 23, 2008

The only reason I singled Brad out was because he was the one mentioned in the post who was trying to define the term. If I’m ignorant about who’s using the term it’s thanks to the less than thorough post that failed to adequately inform me of the context of the discussion.
My basic premise still stands – if you’re using terms you don’t understand then you’re talking out your butt. Where I’m from, those kinds of people are usually just trying to sell you something but then again, I don’t live in “the valley” – maybe it’s normal out there.
But back to the point, if you’re trying to define the “open web” maybe it would help to define the “closed web”. Just based on peoples’ comments about flex and activeX and such, it sounds like you are really talking about proprietary software. In that case the open web has a pretty obvious meaning.
I have to insist though that the software that you choose to use to build your applications with is not the web and you’re not helping by confusing them.

Comment by Igby — July 23, 2008

“The only reason I singled Brad out was because he was the one mentioned in the post who was trying to define the term. If I’m ignorant about who’s using the term it’s thanks to the less than thorough post that failed to adequately inform me of the context of the discussion.”
Context within the latest circles of the intertubes is always an issue, but you don’t need to tell someone like Brad what you did. Obviously Brad has been hearing the term as well and is just as curious (or not curious, as it may be) as you might be. Does that mean he’s the one that’s trying to coin something, or is it more likely that he’s asking the same questions that you might ask?
At least Brad is willing to stick his neck out and actually get a public opinion and/or feedback about it. It’s an admission of ignorance, or perhaps a call for greater consensus; maybe he’s been hearing the term enough to think that it’s here to stay but needs to be less nebulous than “Web 2.0”.
My point (back at you) is that there’s no reason for the negativity you felt the need to share. In fact, the latter part of your last comment is probably more constructive than a good portion of the commentary about the whole topic. Why bother making noise unless you’ve got something to say that can be considered without any kind of judgementality (if that’s a word) about a person asking the question? Particularly when the person in question here has a more-than-good reputation for not simply blowing smoke up people’s *sses?
How about instead actually thinking about the question he’s posing, and responding to that?
Look, I know there’s a lot of noise on the majority of Ajax-based blogs but at some point we need to put up or shut up. Come up with a lucid philosophical thought, and I will support it–whether I agree with it or not. It’s better to be clear than to simply slam without thinking it through first.
(for the record–yes, I know Brad pretty well and it’s likely I am defending him because of that relationship; but I’d like to think that the general thought process I’m talking about here stands on its own merit.)

Comment by ttrenka — July 23, 2008

Just because you do not have an exact definition of term doesn’t mean you can’t know the concept of it and employ it accurately in certain situations.

Maybe openness is quantifiable? Maybe some things are definitely open while others are somewhat open?

“In the end, the user only cares about the content.”
Even if it were true… it would not make him right. Most people are not aware of what they need until they run out of it.

Comment by JeromeLapointe — July 24, 2008

The “Open Web” is a realization.
It is a realization that it is alright to share all kinds of information.
It is a realization that the information you create may be found by others, and then improved.
It is a realization that the information comes even before yourself.

It is a realization that The Information itself is the noble cause.

Comment by ialexi — July 24, 2008

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