By “open standards” I mean standards that can have any committed expert involved in the design, that have been widely reviewed as acceptable, that are available for free on the Web, and that are royalty-free (no need to pay) for developers and users. Open, royalty-free standards that are easy to use create the diverse richness of Web sites, from the big names such as Amazon, Craigslist and Wikipedia to obscure blogs written by adult hobbyists and to homegrown videos posted by teenagers.
Openness also means you can build your own Web site or company without anyone’s approval. When the Web began, I did not have to obtain permission or pay royalties to use the Internet’s own open standards, such as the well-known transmission control protocol (TCP) and Internet protocol (IP). Similarly, the Web Consortium’s royalty-free patent policy says that the companies, universities and individuals who contribute to the development of a standard must agree they will not charge royalties to anyone who may use the standard.
Open, royalty-free standards do not mean that a company or individual cannot devise a blog or photo-sharing program and charge you to use it. They can. And you might want to pay for it if you think it is “better” than others. The point is that open standards allow for many options, free and not.
Indeed, many companies spend money to develop extraordinary applications precisely because they are confident the applications will work for anyone, regardless of the computer hardware, operating system or Internet service provider (ISP) they are using—all made possible by the Web’s open standards. The same confidence encourages scientists to spend thousands of hours devising incredible databases that can share information about proteins, say, in hopes of curing disease. The confidence encourages governments such as those of the U.S. and the U.K. to put more and more data online so citizens can inspect them, making government increasingly transparent. Open standards also foster serendipitous creation: someone may use them in ways no one imagined. We discover that on the Web every day.
In contrast, not using open standards creates closed worlds. Apple’s iTunes system, for example, identifies songs and videos using URIs that are open. But instead of “http:” the addresses begin with “itunes:,” which is proprietary. You can access an “itunes:” link only using Apple’s proprietary iTunes program. You can’t make a link to any information in the iTunes world—a song or information about a band. You can’t send that link to someone else to see. You are no longer on the Web. The iTunes world is centralized and walled off. You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace. For all the store’s wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up.
Other companies are also creating closed worlds. The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.
Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.