What to do about the W3C?
Friday, October 5, 2001 by Dave Winer.
The conundrum of the W3C can be seen in its name -- the World Wide Web Consortium.
The first part, World Wide Web, is at odds with the second part, the Consortium.
The Web was founded on a protocol and a format, HTTP and HTML. Both are brain-dead simple. Totally free. Easy to implement. And widely implemented.
Now, what is a consortium? It's an association of businesses.
Ultimately the consortium will do what the businesses want it to do.
Even if it hurts the Web.
That's the conundrum.
The magic of the Web is its freedom and utter low-tech-ness. The cynics who sniffed at the idealists were wrong, the dotcom crazyness is over, and the Web survives, precisely because it is open to everyone.
The Web works because it's the World Medium, where the TV networks, magazines and newspapers are deeply rooted in specific cultures and interests, the Web can go everywhere telephones and computers go, and represent all interests because it's so easy to create and publish for the Web.
Computers are getting very small, and telephones are now cellular, so the Web is moving into new cultures and economic levels, and that's very important in a world with so many disconnects -- the Web acts as a connector. We saw that as we covered the terrorism in NY and DC and its aftermath. For the first time we were able to directly get information and points of view from ordinary people, and in the process the Web started feeding the news flow instead of just following it. There's a new spirit of cooperation between amateur and professional journalists, and there's no doubt that the Web is at the center of this. It's important.
The Web is not just technology, but a philosophy. Easy specs, open to everyone, no restrictions or royalties, a level playing field, and user choice. That led to freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. It's totally magic and it works, and both technological freedom and free speech are necessary for it to work. The Web is the good part of globalization, and it's important to know how that's being managed, for all people who participate.
In 1994 a consortium of companies was formed, led by the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. There are companies of all size in the consortium. Since the big ones pay most of the bills, they call most of the shots. I know others would disagree with this statement, but I think it's obvious on its face. We tend to listen to money and not ideas. When Microsoft says something it has more import, with most people, than when a smaller company speaks. I wish this were not so, but sadly it is so. Let's recognize it.
There was a time when the Web drove the technology industry. This drove the BigCo's nuts. They embraced the threat, but never welcomed the Web into their lives or their long-term plans. It was an insurrection to be put down. And there are good reasons to believe that the insurrection was put down, if only at a technology level. Today's Web is throttled by the engineers at Microsoft who maintain the browser that has monopoly market share. It's subject to where Microsoft's strategists want to take it. With nary a peep from the caretaker consortium, they are moving to take control not just of the technology, but of the content of the Web. This would be very bad if they did it. So far we've managed to keep them at bay, but I suspect that won't last much longer.
IBM, another BigCo, has embraced open-ness, but apparently with some reservations. Same with the other big companies. It's not fair to single out Microsoft and IBM, but they are at the core of the current controversy, which hasn't been publicly documented, as far as I know.
There's been a lot of discussion on the Web and email over the last week as the conundrum over the W3C and patents has become visible. Apparently precipitated by a disagreement between Microsoft and IBM over patents in Web Services, the question that's been raised that few have focused on is the disconnect between the Web and the organization that's chartered with taking care of it.
Should the Web have welcomed the BigCo's on their terms, or on the terms of the Web? The Web favors low-tech easy-to-implement formats and protocols. The BigCo's for whatever reason, promote difficult formats and protocols, that tend to split the users into groups based on whose software they use, and tend to marginalize smaller developers. It's hard to switch from one brand to another. Progress may grind to a halt while they fight in court. And small companies and independent developers who are philosophically opposed to software patents will be frozen or killed while the BigCo's fight over control of the Web.
In my humble opinion, never has the world needed the World Wide Web more than it does now. Regardless of what the consortium does, freedom-loving developers and writers must work together to ensure that the medium remains open and uncontrolled by big companies.
Anyone with a TV set or a Web browser must get that the world is in crisis.
I urge the leading technology companies to gain a sense of perspective and put their differences aside, and recognize that as businesses, they have more serious concerns than squeezing the maximum money from the Web. Their shareholders must have something to say about this. What is most important, the growth of the industry, the safety of the population, the vibrancy of the market, or the power to control the flow of ideas and information between the world's citizens?
Isn't this at the root of the disconnect between American culture and our economy and the rest of the world?
Fact: the companies who would control the Web are mostly American.
Today, I don't feel much like being an American. I'd rather be free.