Mozilla

Describing the “Open Web”

September 16th, 2009

Jono recently posed the question “What is ‘The Open Web’ and why should you care“. When I’m talking with people who drive cars regularly, I sometimes describe the Open Web by saying it’s a place where there is a decentralized  “aftermarket.” “Aftermarket” is the term used to describe replacement parts or equipment that a person uses to maintain or enhance a product. It’s a well known term in the auto industry.

For example, imagine if you bought a car and were forbidden from replacing the windshield wipers or the battery or the tires unless and until the car manufacturer allowed you to do so. Imagine if you could only use a battery that the car manufacturer provided, or approved. And imagine that the only place to buy batteries or windshield wipers or new tires was from the car dealership. In this case your ability to keep yourself safe is reduced — if the manufacturer has only poor quality tires, that’s all you can get. If you want tires for snow but the manufacturer doesn’t offer them, you’re out of luck. If the tires are wildly expensive, you’re stuck. In this setting we would also say goodbye to the variety of independent developers, stores and maintenance centers; everything would be controlled by the automobile manufacturers. Innovation would also be channeled through this same small number of manufacturers. Develop an innovative tire or better stereo system and you have to get the manufacturers to adopt it; you can’t go directly to consumers.

This ability to change components, to enhance or maintain a product the way to meet individual needs is at risk in the online world. Similarly, the ability of independent creators to try new things is at risk. Technology manufacturers use both technical and legal means to restrain this freedom. Some make it difficult technically to change a component. Others try to make it illegal. Some do both.

The Open Web embodies the legal and technical flexibility so that I can decide what combination of products best suits my needs. I may be very happy to stick completely with what the manufacturer of a piece of technology gives me, just as I might be happy to have all my automotive maintenance done by the dealer using exclusively “official” products. I may want to make only a few changes and the options the manufacturer has pre-approved are fine for me. But somewhere in my life I am very likely to want something slightly different, something attuned to me and the quirks of my life. I may need to find a technical guru to help me, but fortunately there are lots of technical communities building interesting things. The Open Web makes this possibility real, a vibrant part of online life.

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