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Updated: March 10, 2013 16:06 IST

Are closed apps hurting the idea of an open web?

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Mohan Sundara Rajan.
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Mohan Sundara Rajan.

If you read a book on an electronic device such as the Kindle, you are using an Internet application (an ‘app’) provided by a vendor (in this case, Amazon). If you read the same book online on your desktop or a laptop, you are using a web-based service.

If it is an app, the screen comes to you; in the case of the web, you have to go to the screen.

Native apps (locally installed applications) outnumber web-based apps (where all or some parts of the software are downloaded from the web each time it is run). Increasingly, Internet traffic is demonstrating a shift towards apps embedded in various devices, providing a rich and varied fare, including music, videos, animation and online games.

Apps are mostly closed and proprietary, subject to the terms of service including price, set by the vendor. In contrast, web-based features, described as a general purpose facility, are open and free. The native apps, controlled by vendors, are hugely popular with users. Is this trend inevitable and should the open web, considered as one of the finest gifts of the Internet age, be written off?

The early web

The World Wide Web initially brought graphics and text documents on the Internet, connected through clickable hypertext. Tim Berners-Lee, who developed the web and rolled out the first webpage in 1991, wanted it to be free for every user. The creation of the webpage required a computer language, viz. HTML, which instructed the computer what to do when presented a page.

The early web, Web 1.0, handled mostly text. The emergence of broadband, and video and animation on the Internet, showed the weakness of Web 1.0 — it was too slow to handle fast-moving data.

A dynamic tool was called for. After some hiccups, experts agreed to develop HTML5.

To tackle rich content

The aim of HTML5 was to cater to the rising demand for video and animation online, without additional software or plug-ins. The new version of the language, it was hoped, would bring about a powerful Web 2.0.

However, the task of setting the standard has been slow. The final version is expected to be available only in 2014 and HTML5 is yet to acquire the capability to keep pace with the increasing computing power of mobile device.

Meanwhile, the number of native apps has increased considerably thanks to smartphones and tablets. The total number of mobile apps on various platforms is estimated to be around 1.25 million. Over 15,000 mobile apps are reportedly released every week!

Zuckerberg’s ‘mistake’

The inadequacy of HTML5 was dramatically revealed by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. In September last, he said adopting HTML5 for the Facebook mobile site and apps (rather than building native apps) was his ‘biggest mistake’.

Mr. Zukerberg, an early advocate of HTML5, conceded that HTML5 was not bad, but Facebook could not yet efficiently use it on mobile devices accessing the social networking site, numbering about 450 million.

Recent developments have indicated that HTML5 would soon be able to support streaming videos effectively (rather than merely downloading them into user devices), without additional plug-in or software.

The economics

In the final analysis, technological applications are governed by economics. Apple and Google alone have more than 85 per cent of the global smartphone market and they prefer apps, which are cash cows. And apps continue to be in demand.

But the open web needs to be nurtured as it is a global public resource, where open standards have promoted innovations and non-commercial creativity.

(The writer is the author of The Internet: A Revolution in Progress, a forthcoming title from the National Book Trust, New Delhi)

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