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Bruce Lawson: web platform needs payments and DRM

Bruce Lawson argues the web must embrace commercial reality to compete with native apps

The web platform needs payment and DRM to compete with native apps, according to Opera evangelist and open web advocate, Bruce Lawson.

Writing on his blog, Lawson noted how open standards have rapidly evolved. Whereas once you’d have needed a native app to access your device’s GPS information, this can now be done using the W3C Geolocation API. However, he nonetheless argued the web must do more to fully close the gap with native apps in terms of capabilities.

Lawson talked about hardware access, offline working and user interfaces, but concentrated largely on the rather more controversial subjects of DRM and monetisation within the browser. We spoke to Lawson to get further insight into how these things aren’t necessarily incompatible with the idea of an open web and could in fact be essential to its ability to truly compete with native apps.

.net: Why do you think certain important functionality is still missing from open web standards?
BL: What's missing involves the hardest problems to solve. With DRM, there are political issues and also figuring out a solution that isn’t based on plug-ins. Problems with plug-ins are well-documented. Who’d provide the DRM plug-in for Konqueror on Fedora, for example? As a representative of a browser vendor that has a fairly small market-share, this kind of thing worries me, because if someone finds they can’t stream their favourite movie service in your browser, they’ll switch to another.

The other big problem is web payments. In my article, I note that navigator.mozPay() looks interesting, but I don’t know whether that particular solution will work beyond Firefox OS and on the open web. At least W3C Headlights has identified web payments as an area of urgent investigation.

.net: Do you think there’s a clash regarding payments and openness advocates, with some dismissing such requirements as unimportant, or arguing the web isn’t about making money?
BL: I haven’t heard it expressed in such a manner, or so nakedly expressed, but I do detect a vague queasiness ... that question of ‘why do people want to be paid for apps?’ But I wrote a book and liked getting paid for it. You write news articles and they give you cash. It’s nice to be paid for your work! It’s also great some people choose to give away work for free, but if others want to make money from the web, there must be a mechanism for them to do so, or they simply won’t use the web as their delivery mechanism.

.net: What else in terms of the open web needs work for it to compete with native?
BL: The real problem is fragmentation. If you want to target a particular platform, deficiencies are known and you can expect them. With IE6, the bugs were so well documented they almost ceased to be bugs because you knew how to deal with them. The difficulty is when there are so many different consumption platforms, by which I mean browsers. The thing that could save us is auto-updating browsers, so you can rely on always having the latest version, thereby ensuring interoperability is there.

.net: Is there hope these things will happen soon, enabling the open web to fully compete with native?
BL: I hope so. The thing we’ll see soonest is DRM, and that’s because when big guns are behind it, there’s significant corporate impetus. I don’t see that as indicative that Satan is involved in the web either. We want it to be a platform that big corporates through to individuals use. Therefore, big corporations getting involved strikes me generally as a good thing, even if they might do things I don’t personally like.

The alternative is large corporations not having any significant web presence because they can’t send their content over it. This sends a message: those big guys are heavily invested in native apps and not the open web. That impacts the entire community.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m certainly not ecstatic by any means about the idea of DRM, but it’s, on balance, better than people not using the web. Realistically, corporations aren’t going to go: 'oh, there’s no way of securing our content, and so we’ll just dismantle our entire business model and give everything away'. That’s just not going to happen.

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