Open vs. Closed: Why Open Standards Matter

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

What browser developments are you looking forward to the most?

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

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