Firefox veteran downbeat on open web

Joe Hewitt bucks trend by predicting a tough future for the open web versus apps

Joe Hewitt

Joe Hewitt fears the open web will be left behind as native apps advance

Software developer Joe Hewitt, best known for his work on Firefox and the iOS Facebook app, has gone against the grain with his predictions for the future of the open web.

In his articles Web Technologies Need an Owner and What the Web is and is not, he questions those who believe the open platform of the web will remain dominant and complains about the sluggish advance of web standards compared to native solutions.

“I’ve been a web developer for 17 years now and I'm flabbergasted with the slow pace of progress in rendering engines and standards,” he told .net. “As a Windows developer in the 1990s, things I took for granted then are just now coming to the web, and many of them are still years away.

“I blame a lack of urgency and leadership from both the standards bodies and the browser vendors. Most of the people in control of these technologies are not web developers and are tragically out of touch with the needs of developers.”

Hewitt thinks those who believe in banking solely on web technology is the answer to everything are barking up the wrong tree. “It's a good idea in theory,” he says, “but with the rise of app stores, you no longer need to make the sacrifices required by the web platform just to reach users. You can reach a ton of users with native apps, and that audience is growing rapidly. If the HTML stack wasn't so weak, I think more developers would stick with it instead of moving to native platforms.”

Competition time

In Web Technologies Need an Owner, Hewitt argues: “Let's face facts: the web will never be the dominant platform. There will forever be other important platforms competing for users' time.” We wondered if he thought this was down to issues relating to technology or usability (versus native apps), or a combination of these things, and if there’s anything that can be done to fix the problem.

“The web is the largest platform today, no doubt,” he replied. “What I meant to say was that the web is going to have more competition than it has had, its share will erode, and it's not going to come back to the same levels.” He suggests developers have fled Windows in favour of the web for years, helping its dominance, but the onset of app stores has eroded that advantage. “The only thing that will fix this problem is if the pace of innovation on native platforms comes to a halt, and the web is given a decade or so to catch up. I don't see that happening. The problem is not going to get fixed because it's just not possible for the browser vendors and a few standards bodies to go through their process at the same pace that the Apples and Googles of the world can advance their operating systems.”

The web as a data layer

Hewitt recently tweeted that the web will never disappear entirely, and could exist as the data layer, thereby also remaining suitable for basic apps and delivery, but he told us that wouldn’t be entirely beneficial: “That's a bad thing if you like search engines. You can't really index a bunch of JSON APIs hidden behind authorisation barriers, which is how developers expose their data when they only have native apps in mind as consumers. Even if Google could index that data, what would users see when they clicked the link? A JSON blob? It's amazing that Google has let Android become such a web-hostile platform, given the long-term implications for their search business. Are mobile display ads really going to replace AdWords?”

So, we asked, what can anyone do to strengthen the position of the web as we know it, versus native apps and native delivery mechanisms for data and content?

“I could advise people help strengthen the web by making websites instead of native apps, by removing unnecessary authorisation barriers around their data, and by using techniques like responsive design to make their websites more usable on mobile devices,” Hewitt replied. “However, it's hard for me to give that advice today, because the ROI is simply higher on native platforms for a wide variety of applications.

“I don't see why anyone would make a game for the mobile web in this day and age. News and magazines are still better on the web, but as things like Newsstand in iOS5 come out, and as Facebook and Twitter become more attractive publishing platforms, that may no longer be the case in a few years.

“Most local businesses are probably better of with a Yelp or Facebook page instead of a website, and who uses browsers to visit Yelp or Facebook on smartphones? This is all going to take a long time to play out, but the trend is clear and I have yet to see a reason it will reverse.”

What are your thoughts on Hewitt’s arguments and the state of the web versus native apps? Let us know in the comments!