As the Web Grows, Do Browser Makers Wield Too Much Power?

by Ostatic Staff - Jul. 18, 2014

Do you ever take a step back and look at how central the web is to your life? For some people, it's an always connected, ever present adjunct to their actual consciousness. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil even predict that we will eventually effectively merge with the web and other technology tools, giving us almost superhuman abilities to instantly access information.

At this year's Great Wide Open conference, Steven Klabnik delivered an interesting talk on how the web evolves, and his talk was titled "Browsers are Eating the World." You can view the whole address on YouTube. Essentially, Klabnik has argued that browser makers have a disproportionate impact on how the web evolves, relative to developers and standards bodies, who--he says--ought to swing bigger sticks. has a good summary of Klabnik's position:

"Currently, browser vendors dictate the features they'd like to become standards. They argue and debate the merits of implementing a feature in a particular way, and eventually (in weeks, months, even years) reach an agreement about a standard way to handle that feature. Then they inform web standards bodies (like the W3C) of the new rules; these bodies, in turn, tell web developers how to incorporate those standards into tools like browsers."

That does seem like kind of a backward model, doesn't it? It's been good to see browsers with open source roots come to the fore, but it's still true that commercial interests are behind the top browsers. Why should the commercial interests behind browsers have so much clout in advancing the web?

"The web is something that is very human," Klabnik said in his address. "It's not owned by a company. It's not controlled by a particular corporate interest. The web is something that we have all built for humanity."

The truth is, we are in the middle of a sea change when it comes to truly open development of technology. In an InfoWorld story, Matt Asay notes that we now live in a "post-open source world," where things like licenses have faded in importance. He writes:

"Open source' doesn't really matter anymore. Not as some countercultural raging against the corporate software machine, anyway. Open source, after all, powers the most important software today, driving big trends like cloud computing, big data, and mobile. It's no longer the challenger. It's not an underdog. Open source today is simply how we write software."

How we write software has undergone more change in the last 10 years than it did in the 20 years previous to that, and how we agree on standards has changed too. 

As ar as Klabnik is concerned, he seems to feel that developers should be at the control wheel when it comes to the web, and vendors should take dication from them. That assumes, of course, that developers will take a holistic view of the web and its importance to all of us. 

Democratically-minded folks might argue that neither developers nor vendors should have disproportionate control over the web's advancement. Let's not forget that the last word in "World Wide Web Consortium" is consortium. But do we really have a democratic development model? Some argue that we still haven't decided who should be in charge.