Something in a recent piece by Jeremy Keith really clicked with something I’ve been thinking about, so I thought I’d write about it.
Recently Jeremy Keith published “The State of the Web”. It’s based on an opening talk from the An Event Apart Spring Summit earlier this year. He’s also made it available in audio format. Jeremy is a great story teller/writer/speaker, so it is unsurpringly a delightful read/listen, and I couldn’t recommend it enough. In it, he (beautifully) explains a lot about perspective. He holds up that
“Astronauts have been known to experience something called the overview effect. It’s a profound change in perspective that comes from seeing the totality of our home planet in all its beauty and fragility.”
He notes that the famous “earthrise” photo (below) that the astronauts took, gave everyone here on earth a very small taste of that too.
Then he asks...
“I wonder if it’s possible to get an overview effect for the World Wide Web?”
When I heard this, I realized: This is exactly what I have been trying to get at too, just from a different angle.
I have been trying to ask people to put aside a lot of the conversations that we typically have for a moment. Zoom out, and see the whole ecosystem.
It’s not that all of things we talk about today are unimportant, in fact, some of them are profoundly important - but when you zoom way out and look at the whole thing, you gain some new perspective on all of them... And more.
Gaining new perspective can have big impacts. In How we got to now Steven Johnson describes how mirrors, and the simple ability to see one’s self ultimately impacted art, literature and politics. It literally helped shape the world in profound ways.
Since coming to work at Igalia, I’ve gotten the rare privilidge to observe the web ecosystem from a whole new point of view. That is, not the site and pages, but what makes all of that stuff possible and holds it all together? This has caused exactly that sort of “overview effect” shift for me, and really want to share it.
There is, unfortunately, no camera with which to snap a nice neat “Webrise” photo that I can distribute, nor a mirror I can just show people. So, I’ll try to use words.
We spend so much time discussing particular details: “Why are none of them giving time to feature Q?”. Or, “Why does z push so many (or few) features?”. Or even, “Why are they all doing x instead of y?!”. We imagine larger motives. We fill volumes with debates.
But, from my vantage point, I see something that informs all of those, and seems far more important.
We’ve built the web so far on a very particular model, with web engine implementers at the center. The whole world is leaning extremely heavily on the indepenendent, voluntary funding (and management and prioritization) of a very few steward organizations.
Maybe that isn’t a great idea.
However much we might have convinced ourselves that this is how it should work, it feels increasingly bad to me. It seems like it is not a lasting strategy, and we really need one that is. Web engines have to outlast each of those voluntary investments/investors. The current situation feels precarious.
There are, of course, a lot of variables, but I can easily imagine a lot of ways that it could all come apart - either with a bang, or a whimper.
Imagine, for example, that Apple is convinced to match or even exceed Google’s contributions. Yay! A boom in innovation! Great! It seems hard to imagine Mozilla not being left behind. Maybe Google responds in kind and we enter a sort of “new arms” race. Again, great for a lot of things, but sustainability isn’t one. In this scenario it feels almost certain to me that Mozilla (the only foundation here) is the first casuality, but maybe not the last. The aim of a war is to win. And then what? Microsoft won the first browser wars, and then left the game.
Or perhaps legislation hits Google’s default search deal and seriously disrupts things in the ecosystem. That’s pretty much all of the actual funding for Mozilla. Uh oh. Interestingly too though, Apple’s entire earnings would suddenly dip by something like 15-20%. Yikes! Perhaps there are simply changes in leadership. Or several of these happen together. All sorts of things like these cause companies to re-evaluate what they’re spending money on. If any of these things caused reevaluation by either company, it’s not impossible for me to imagine them deciding that maybe the costs outweigh the benefits of maintaining an engine in the first place. That’s an entirely normal response and there are historical precedents: Opera did it. Microsoft did it. And the problems in this space only get harder and harder (see next section).
The only thing I can say for sure is that things will change for businesses we’re leaning on. In fact, things have changed. In 1993 when the web was still in its infancy - Microsoft had just entered the top 10 by market cap. By actual revenue, they weren’t even on the list. In fact, the first company who makes an engine to appear on the top 10 list by revenue was Apple, in 2014… At the same time, there are several other tech companies who are also on the list who don’t invest in implementations at all. Many have come and gone since. It is incredibly rare for a business to stay on the Fortune 500 list (let alone dominate it) for more than 10-15 years. When this status is lost, actions and reevaluation usually follow and as a result key dominating names in computing have disappeared entirely.
Not just more sustainable… More.
Being reliant on the historical model isn’t just possibly precarious in the long term - it also has definite limits. All of the engine teams, no matter how big, have to do some fairly radical prioritorization. The backlog is already miles long, and subject to lots of filters. It’s not just how big a team is, but tons of mundane things about the makeup, expertise, and often the vision and current state of some area of code in their engine.
A really basic implication of this is that rollouts of features can be extremely ragged, but it’s much more than that. It also means that they have to short circuit things where they can. Even in standards discussion, it means a lot of potentially good stuff just can’t get discussed. In the end, it's hard to work all of those things in a way that it’s easy to say is representative of everyone if only a few are investing in the commons.
Solvable, but not solved anywhere
Luckily, this is all very solvable, and is very much in our control. To some extent we’ve already started to address it: There are today, more limited partners too. I think that somehow people have impressions of this, but we don’t talk about the actual details much, so let’s…
It’s held up, for example, that Microsoft, Samsung and Intel are all Chromium partners. That’s great, and that isn’t even counting Igalia, who has, for the last few years, made more contributions than anyone outside of Google.
Others, I’ve heard say that Mozilla has a veritable army of independent contributors too.
Conversely, I often hear WebKit described as “mainly an Apple thing”. However, there are partners there too. Igalia, Sony and RedHat all contribute significantly, for example.
However, if we look at commits: Over 80% of contributions to Chromium come from Google, about 77% of contributions in WebKit come from Apple, and at Mozilla Central - about 82% of commits are from Mozillans.
In other words, they aren’t all that different in terms of diversity of investment. Each engine project would seem to have about 20-25% of its investment diversified. That’s way better than exclusive investment, but I think we’ve still got a long way to go.
One obvious solution seems to be for existing implementation partners to simply ramp up contribution budgets.
Sure that would be great on its own, but that’s still a really small number of organizations. There are many big tech web companies who aren’t on that list at all, at lest one of them is in the “trillion dollar club”.
Imagine what we could do if we changed our perspective, and built a model in which we invested and prioritized more collaboratively. Imagine how much more resilient that would be.
Collective Funding for Collective Benefits
We’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve problems together in standards, but we don’t then also act together. But… we could.
In fact, why should we stop at a dozen big tech companies making gigantic or general investments? We could decide that investments, could also be shared in different ways. Funding doesn’t need to come from giant sources, or to be generally purposed. 10 companies agreeing to invest $10k apiece to advance and maintain some area of shared interest is every bit as useful as 1 agreeing to invest $100k generally. In fact, maybe it’s more representative.
Igalia has help advanced things that boost capabilities for everyone by working with individual organizations, often much smaller ones, who have considerably finite asks: More responsive cable box interfaces or more fluid SVG interfaces on their cooking machines. We do this precisely because we can see the interconnectedness of it.
We believe that there is a very long tail of increasingly smaller companies who could do something, if only they coordinated to fund it together. The further we stretch this out, the more sources we enable, the more its potential adds up.
That’s part of what our Open Prioritization efforts have been about. We’re trying to shine light on this in different ways, open new doors and help people see the web ecosystem from a different perspective.
My colleage, Eric Meyer recently gave a talk to W3C member orgnizations on this topic, and we did a podcast together on it too, as part of announcing our new MathML-Core Support Collective. You can find links to both and learn more about it in this announcement.
If you find this interesting, please let us know. Consider talking to orgnanizations interested in promoting the advancement of more rapidly interoperable and standard and accessible mathematical support on the web by adding some supporting funding through the collective - but also to organizations who aren’t interested in math specifically about the bigger idea. I’m hopeful that we can shift our perspective.