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How to stop Apple and Google's great web lockdown

HTML5 plus JavaScript, the new open source

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Open...and Shut Both Google and Apple are vying to win the "Most Open Platform" prize in the mobile computing beauty pageant, but neither deserves the blue ribbon.

Both companies make serious compromises in order to retain control of their platforms. But the emerging HTML5 standard, with a heavy dose of JavaScript, may up-end both companies' attempts to lock down apps to their respective platforms.

Ironically, it will be Google's desire for openness on the desktop that trumps its (and Apple's) desire for control on smart phones.

Apple's closed nature, or what Apple chief executive Steve Jobs prefers to call "integrated," is not a secret. One of Apple's defining principles is that tight control of its platform, and what runs on it, is the best way to deliver a compelling consumer experience. In Jobs' mind, Google's Android code may be open source, but the fragmentation that ensues makes it a closed platform that is bad for customers and app developers alike.

Not everyone agrees. TweetDeck's CEO argues that Android's fragmentation is easy for an app developer to manage.

At any rate, the fragmentation hasn't seemed to slow Android's success. Responding to Jobs, Google's Andy Rubin says that source code access is all that's required to be truly open, and that the company's openness is a key element to its success.

But this isn't completely true, as noted Facebook developer Joe Hewitt points out. Hewitt argues that Android is only open after the fact. That is, the company only releases code after it is complete:

Until Android is read/write open, it's no different than iOS to me. Open source means sharing control with the community, not show and tell.

Not only this, but there are clear signs that Google has intentionally avoided standards-based Java for its own Dalvik interpretation in order to ensure that Android apps remain firmly entrenched on Android. Google has played the openness card, but perhaps isn't the Saint Stallman it sometimes portrays itself to be.

Google is, however, the industry's foremost proponent of the rising HTML5 standard, which ultimately will do more for its business than controlling Android development ever could. Android, for all its success, has never been Google's primary mechanism for driving an open web, one that feeds its online advertising business. Chrome OS is.

Chrome OS takes consumers and enterprises away from dependence on the desktop and welds their allegiance firmly to the web, the platform that Google increasingly dominates. While Google is quick to dispute the idea that it has any control of the web or even of its search users, it is clear from the earliest interviews on Chrome OS and HTML5 that Google believes it will win the majority of battles that assume the web is the primary computing platform.

Apple, for its part, is willing to follow along because it wants HTML5 to displace Flash. The company appears to not be overly worried that HTML5-based web apps will dislodge developers from writing apps for its iOS devices in Objective-C. Apple might want to consider the impact of Strobe, which ex-Apple engineer Charles Jolley formed to marry the power of HTML5 and native apps. Strobe's SproutCore could make it much easier for developers and, hence, consumers, to move their apps between platforms.

But perhaps Apple is right not to worry. As Laura Merling, vice president of Open API platform and services at Alcatel-Lucent, believes, while HTML5 adoption will be fast, it's unlikely to gain more than 20 per cent of the market due to continuing browser fragmentation.

I think HTML5 adoption will be stronger than that, though Merling's concern is valid. But for all the potential for fragmentation, there are counterbalancing benefits to convergence.

Again, Apple wants HTML5 to displace Flash. Google's advertising business depends upon rampant, widespread adoption of the web, which HTML5 supports. Even Microsoft, with so much tied up in its legacy desktop business, is playing catch-up to both Google and Apple, and standards generally favor the challenger in a market.

Yes, each of these companies, among others, will compete vigorously to skew the standards to their isolated benefit. But I still have confidence that truly standard HTML5 will win out because it works to Google's advantage, not only because Google is increasingly the team to beat, but also because Mozilla's Firefox is an ever-present reminder that the world can get along fine without the major software vendors' browsers.

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