Is the Web Losing Ground on Freedom, Interoperability?

Loraine Lawson

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the U.S., and so I looked up Thanksgiving on Wikipedia earlier this week. The Internet being what it is, this inevitably lead to looking up Pilgrims, who are often confused with Puritans, but were actually a very different religious group called Separatists.


We focus a lot on the whole Thanksgiving thing, but no less significant to America's legend is why the Pilgrims sought out the New World in the first place. Pilgrims or Separatists were much less accepted in England than Puritans. They had a number of disagreements with the Church of England, leading to their persecution, arrest, immigration to Holland and, finally, a boat ride aboard the Mayflower in 1620. There were 102 Pilgrims who started the trip. When they finally disembarked in 1621, only 53 passengers-including the two babies born aboard the ship-remained alive.


Now those people knew a thing or two about pursuing freedom.


We've profited from this devotion to freedom, not only as a country, but as individuals and businesses operating within that country. It also happens to be a key principal of the Web-though there it's called "universality" and "interoperability."


Tim Berners-Lee, who knows a thing or two about the Web and these core principles, recently argued we're losing ground when it comes to the Web and freedom:

Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments-totalitarian and democratic alike-are monitoring people's online habits, endangering important human rights. If we, the Web's users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want.

This isn't just a political or philosophical discussion about what kind of society we want to be, online or off. As Berners-Lee points out, it's also about your ability to make money. The walled-off standards of Facebook, Twitter and Apple's iTunes may be good for their profits, but it can stifle innovation and, yes, your efforts to make a profit:

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.

Berners-Lee is addressing the more obvious ways the Web is losing ground when it comes to interoperability and universality. ZapThink managing partner Jason Bloomberg recently wrote about a less obvious, but more integration-specific and IT-centric, example of the problem in "Where's our Deep Interoperability?"


Bloomberg points out that the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) recently announced it has completed its work. It's shutting up shop and transferring its intellectual property to OASIS.


The WS-I's job wasn't to write standards, but to work out how to implement the standards, "offering guidance to vendors on how to implement the standards to guarantee interoperability," explains Bloomberg. So, the committee's pronouncement that it's finished would be great news if we had deep interoperability, but, notes Bloomberg, we don't.


There are a number of factors at play here, as Ron Schmelzer, also a managing partner at ZapThink, says in an IDG article on the WS-I announcement. Web services have lost ground to the alternative REST Web services and mergers, and acquisitions have "also diminished issues of interoperability," Schmelzer points out.


But Bloomberg questions whether there might be yet another reason:

... proprietary interfaces lead to customer lock-in, and all vendors want that. Vendors were driving the effort all along, of course. They love paying lip service to standard interfaces, because customers demand them. But if such standards really worked-if products truly interoperated, in a way that stood the test of time-then you could easily replace a poorer product with a better one. And what vendor today wants that?

There are only so many times in history that people get to start over in a completely new frontier. I agree with Berners-Lee: The Web will be what we make of it. Like the Pilgrims, it started out with the right principles in place-a second great experiment "for promoting human happiness by reasonable compact in civil Society."

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