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Summary:

Hot on the heels of the release of Opera 10.52 for Mac, I thought I’d chat to Bruce Lawson, a web evangelist at Opera, about the Open vs. Closed debate, and discover why open standards matter for web workers — and the web as a whole.

Browser vendor Opera Software is well-known for its support of open web standards. So hot on the heels of the release of Opera 10.52 for Mac, I thought I’d chat to Bruce Lawson, a web evangelist at Opera, about the Open vs. Closed debate, which we’re covering as an ongoing series on the GigaOM Network, to get his take on why open standards matter for web workers — and the web as a whole. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Simon: Can you briefly outline Opera’s stance on open standards?

Lawson: Of all the browsers currently available, Opera has been around the longest, and has always supported open standards. Note I don’t mean open source; although there are overlaps between the two movements, they’re not the same. You could make an open-source Photoshop clone, for example, but as the Photoshop data format PSD isn’t an open standard, so you couldn’t use it in your clone. We believe that if data is transferred in open, royalty-free formats then it is more future-proof and more manipulable than data that is held in proprietary formats. You’re also protected against being locked into one company’s products — if you don’t like us tomorrow, you can change. I have university essays in a proprietary Tasword format that I can’t open any more as the format was tied to one program, which is now discontinued.

And we put our money where our mouth is: Out of 600 employees, about 25 devote most of their time working on actually making the standards — both the “sexy” standards like HTML5, CSS (our CTO Håkon Wium Lie was co-creator of CSS), SVG, geolocation and widgets, and also the “industry standards” that drive the TV and mobile applications industry, such as CE-HTML, JIL and BONDI.

Simon: The web designers and developers in the WebWorkerDaily audience should all be aware of the benefits of open standards as they use them daily in their work, but why are they important for everyone else? If I’m, say, a copywriter or a lawyer, why should I care?

Lawson: Apart from the future-proofing aspect I explained before, you also have the advantage of portability. An HTML document, for example, will open just about anywhere — PC, Mac, Linux, mobile devices, netbooks etc. Documents authored to W3C standards can work with all the world’s languages, and can be run on mobile devices, TVs and even the much-vaunted web-enabled fridge. There’s also the question of accessibility. Open web standards developed by the W3C have to go through a process to ensure they are accessible — that is, the information contained in documents developed according to the standard can be made available to people with disabilities so, for example, a blind person can hear a description of an image, or a person who can’t use a mouse can navigate a web page using only the keyboard. That accessibility isn’t automatic — the developer has to be professional and take care to use the language correctly — but there is nothing inherently blocking that accessibility. It seems to me that a copywriter would want her purple prose to be available to as many people as possible, and the lawyer would know that in many jurisdictions it’s illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities.

Simon: Opera has been championing support for standards for some time now. Was the decision to support open standards primarily an ideological one, or a commercial one?

Lawson: Both. Our customers (for our embedded browsers, our mobile browsers, etc.) require us to adhere to industry standards, so if we don’t then we don’t get the business. Open standards, as I explained before, ensure the widest possible reach, so it’s sensible to champion them and support them.

Fundamentally (and here’s the ideology) we believe that you should be able to reach any website from any device: a desktop, a phone, an in-car browser, a digital picture frame. It won’t necessarily look exactly the same everywhere (in fact, it shouldn’t — a web page might be easier to read if reformatted to fit a mobile phone screen, for example), but you should be able to access it and interact with it.

Simon: It seems to me that open standards take a long time to develop, due to the amount of wrangling it takes to get agreement from all interested parties in reaching the most acceptable solution. Do you think that open standards hinder or slow the pace of browser innovation (and the web, generally)?

Lawson: It does take a long time to develop open standards. But that standardization process pays off very quickly. Developing a typical web page now is much quicker if you do it to those standards than it was during the dark days of the last Browser War, when you had to develop parallel code bases for IE and Netscape, or choose one of them and lock out people who used the other browser.

As to whether open standards slow the development of the browser — that could be true, if we were selfish. If, for example, you wanted to include some new feature in a browser it is indeed much faster just to develop it and add it in, rather than wait for it to be standardized. But that definitely inhibits the development of the open, interoperable web, and for us that’s much, much more important.

In fact, open standards can speed up browser development. Take, for example, XMLHttpRequest — XHR — the technology that powers Ajax-driven websites that feel as responsive as desktop apps. It was invented by Microsoft. Every other browser vendor saw the value of this technology and spent countless man-hours reverse engineering it to get into their browsers. Now, XHR has been standardized. Any new browser vendor wishing to implement XHR just picks up the spec and implements it, with no need for all that reverse engineering. And because the specification is well-written (disclosure: it was edited by Anne van Kesteren, a colleague of mine at Opera) it can be implemented in a way that is interoperable with existing browsers and websites. Everybody wins.

Simon: There’s new browser war raging at the moment — the major vendors all have pretty good products. Competition in the market is fierce, and seems to be being waged on three fronts: features, speed and standards. What future developments are you looking forward to the most?

Lawson: Personally, I’m excited about HTML5 (so excited, in fact, I’m writing a book about it). HTML is the language that the web
is based on, and it hasn’t been overhauled in a decade. The new version — which already has great support in modern browsers — allows websites to
be even more like desktop applications, encompassing on-the-fly image generation, native video and audio, data storage in the browser and offline applications. Consumers might not know there’s a whole new evolution under the hood, but they will notice new robustness, interoperability and things “just working” — no more messages to download and install new plugins.

Widgets are very exciting, too. You can write an app that behaves like a native app, has access to the file system but is written using web standards, so
can be run on any smartphone with a widget manager (see more at widgets.opera.com)

What browser developments are you looking forward to the most?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): What Does the Future Hold For Browsers?

Photo by stock.xchng user beuford00

By Simon Mackie

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  1. fwiw, lots of tools work with .PSD files. Been that way for years.

    Much of the WhatWG’s “HTML5″ proposals will effectively fork the web, raising the barriers to new HTML renderers, preventing older renderers from working with newer content. I have hope that the W3C will take a more realistic, open stance.

    Flash’s ongoing accessibility work exceeds the WhatWG’s work in this area.

    Technology options are great. They give us more ways to fit a solution to a particular situation. Being open about being “open” is very helpful.

    jd/adobe

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  2. I’ve always liked the Opera browser. It’s always had cutting edge features and has been very innovative over the years. I wish them all there a long and successful business.

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  3. Hi John
    sorry for the confusion: the line “so you couldn’t use it in your clone” was an editorial insertion, rather than my words.

    I meant to show the difference between open source and open standard (eg, that you could have open source programs that use data in non-open formats and, by extension, that you can have closed-source programs that use data in open standards).

    I didn’t mean to imply that tools can’t work with .PSD files.

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  4. Great Article.

    Love Bruce, ever since I met him he has inspired me to look even more open than I all ready was.

    @jd/adobe, You have to raise the bar to push development forward. Whats the obsession with comparing Flash vs HTML5 because its easy? I understand that even Adobe hates flash because it makes no money. So why try to defend it? Its crap, it crashes browsers, its not cross-platform anymore.
    and on your comment of “preventing older renderers from working with newer content” can you run AS3 inside Flash6 can you …… ?? In HTML5 you can have fall back methods that allows the New functionality to be rendered in older browsers. I know this because I have spent the last year looking at these options.

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  5. Yea, this coming from the site who sues companies to get their browser out there. Big talk. But Opera doesn’t want to support standards, Opera wants to BE the standard, to decide the standards.

    Not idealogical, purely commercial.

    ‘shrugs’
    I was with ‘em till they sued MSFT for being popular. That’s just lame.

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    1. Chris, Opera didn’t sue anyone.

      We complained to the European Union that Microsoft was abusing its monopoly position. Mozilla and Google supported that complaint (but couldn’t make it themselves as they’re not European companies).

      The EU decided to investigate and told Microsoft to offer a ballot choice screen.

      It was nothing to do with “popular”, it was to do with bundling one product (Internet Explorer) with another (Windows).

      I’m sorry that you’ve been mis-informed.

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      1. You’re a liar, Bruce.

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      2. Care to explain exactly how Bruce is a liar, Joey? Ideally with, like, some actual evidence, some links to official sources? No? Thought not.

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  6. OfNoConsequence Thursday, April 29, 2010

    I find this particular comment quite interesting:

    -> “…about 25 devote most of their time working on actually making the standards…”

    So what you’re really saying is that in addition to supporting the proposed (but not yet ratified as a standard) HTML5 implementation, you company is creating Opera specific extensions, with the expectation that with the EU’s help, they will become defacto standards.

    Isn’t that what Microsoft got (and still gets) skewered for with IE 6? Proprietary extensions that didn’t work in other browers, or worked in a less than optimal manner?

    As for Opera suing Microsoft, I know that Opera didn’t, however the country where Opera is based is NOT part of the European Union, so how come Opera gets to complain to the European Commission (which is the basically the DOJ of the EU)?

    Lastly, Apple and Linux distros also bundle one browser of their choice, so why isn’t there a complaint against them as well?

    Millions of Apple and Linux desktops are also not chump change, so why aren’t you an equal opportunity whiner going after all operating systems for equal footing?

    Or was Microsoft just too attractive and easy a target since the EC (in the form of Neelie Kroes) has already demonstrated that Microsoft is on their list of American companies to litigate against?

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    1. “So what you’re really saying is that in addition to supporting the proposed (but not yet ratified as a standard) HTML5 implementation, you company is creating Opera specific extensions, with the expectation that with the EU’s help, they will become defacto standards.”

      No, that’s what you’re incorrectly saying. What I’m saying that those people are working with various industry groups and standards committees – for example, HTML5, ECMAscript, CSS, JIL and BONDI, the Mobile Best Practices Working Group, the British Standards Institution etc.

      “the country where Opera is based is NOT part of the European Union”. That’s true, but it is part of the European Economic Area which “allows Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to participate in Europe’s single market without having to join the Union. In exchange, they are obliged to adopt certain EU internal market legislation.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Economic_Area

      “Lastly, Apple and Linux distros also bundle one browser of their choice, so why isn’t there a complaint against them as well?”

      Because they don’t seem to be acting in a manner that suggests unfair practices.

      “Or was Microsoft just too attractive and easy a target since the EC (in the form of Neelie Kroes) has already demonstrated that Microsoft is on their list of American companies to litigate against?”

      I’m sorry, I can’t answer on behalf of the EC.

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  7. @OfNoConsequence:

    “So what you’re really saying is that in addition to supporting the proposed (but not yet ratified as a standard) HTML5 implementation, you company is creating Opera specific extensions, with the expectation that with the EU’s help, they will become defacto standards.”

    WTF is that? Opera, just like all other companies, is allowing its people to participate in standards bodies.

    Standards in which people from other companies also collaborate and discuss and things are finalized by consensus and agreement. Opera is doing no different than Mozilla, Google, IBM, Apple and MS and a host of other companies and organizations which are part of the W3C.

    It seems you don’t know anything about standards and equally nothing about browsers. And you know what? I’m actually glad the EU took action against MS. Before that MS didnt really give a shit about standards, but since then, we’ve seen MS take standards seriously with their IE9 developer preview.

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  8. [...] Open vs. Closed: Why Open Standards Matter [...]

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  9. Joey said “You’re a liar, Bruce”,

    Joey, if you’d care to demonstrate how you think I’m lying, then that contributes to the discussion. Otherwise, that’s just a childish insult.

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  10. [...] technologies like HTML5 will render Flash obsolete (for more about why open standards matter, see my interview with Bruce Lawson of Opera). However,  even though HTML5 video is becoming more commonplace, and I don’t come across [...]

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