David Baron's Weblog

Tying ecosystems through browsers

Monday, 2015-08-03, 00:15 -0700

One of the principles behind HTML5, and the community building it, is that the specifications that say how the Web works should have enough detail that somebody reading them can implement the specification. This makes it easier for new Web browsers to enter the market, which in turn helps users through competitive pressure on existing and new browsers.

I worry that the Web standards community is in danger of losing this principle, quite quickly, and at a cost to competition on the Web.

Some of the recent threats to the ability to implement competitive browsers are non-technical:

Many parts of the technology industry today are dominated by a small group of large companies (effectively an oligopoly) that have an ecosystem of separate products that work better together than with their competitors' products. Apple has Mac OS (software and hardware), iOS (again, software and hardware), Apple TV, Apple Pay, etc. Google has its search engine and other Web products, Android (software only), Chrome OS, Chromecast and Google Cast, Android Pay, etc. Microsoft has Windows, Bing, Windows Phone, etc. These products don't line up precisely, but they cover many of the same areas while varying based on the companies strengths and business models. Many of these products are tied together in ways that both help users and, since these ties aren't standardized and interoperable, strongly encourage users to use other products from the same company.

There are some Web technologies in development that deal with connections between parts of these ecosystems. For example:

In both cases, specifying the system fully is more work. But it's work that needs to happen to keep the Web open and competitive. That's why we've had the principle of complete specification, and it still applies here.

I'm worried that the ties that connect the parts of these ecosystems together will start running through unspecified parts of Web technologies. This would, through the loss of the principle of specification for competition, makes it harder for new browsers (or existing browsers made by smaller companies) to compete, and would make the Web as a whole a less competitive place.