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Silicon Valley’s war for the mobile web

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If you work at a major Silicon Valley tech company and that company isn’t Apple, you’ve got skin in the mobile web game. But advocating for and working on the mobile web is becoming increasingly politicized and divisive.

On the one side, you have Facebook drumming up a consortium of heavy hitters, including the vocally pro-mobile-web Mozilla, Microsoft, Verizon, Samsung, and around 25 other companies, to work within a W3C community group establishing benchmarks for the industry. On the other side, you have Yahoo and, even more conspicuously, Google, which are not participating in the community’s mobile web love-fest, but which have an incredible amount of weight to throw around in this arena.

Official statements from all of these companies show the same thing: They believe in the power and potential of the mobile web to flourish and eventually become more prevalent than native platforms.

You would think, given their identical aspirations, the three titans –Facebook, Yahoo, and Google — would pool their boundless resources to fast-track the mobile web from the janky, derided ghetto it is to the elegant utopia each of these parties sees in the near future. Yet they remain divided rather than collaborating, which means consumers lose and innovation stagnates.

So who are these players, what are they trying to accomplish, and why aren’t they all rowing together toward bright, happy shore of mobile web Elysium? As always, when corporate shenanigans don’t make any sense, you have to follow the money.


Facebook: The ringleader and the troublemaker

For the youngest company involved in the Great Mobile Web Push of 2012, Facebook brings a remarkable power and urgency to the work at hand. Facebook had no mobile presence whatsoever a mere four years ago. Now, its shoving its way to the front of the fray, most notably in its work with Ringmark.

“No one company can fix all of these, but We are very keen to work with the industry, browser vendors, OEMs, carriers, and developers themselves to smooth away those challenges,” said Facebooker James Pearce.

Pearce, a former physics teacher, now spearheads mobile developer relations for the social network. At a recent meeting of the unofficial Facebook press corps, Pearce led journalists through a rundown of Facebook’s views on the mobile web. While the company does invest heavily in Android and iOS apps, it sees twice the amount of traffic coming from the mobile web as it does from either of those native platforms.

“Users are actually wanting to use the mobile web version when it’s available,” said Pearce, “so for a third-party app developer, the same logic may apply.” However, he continued, mobile browsers and mobile devices themselves aren’t living up to their end of the bargain.

To that end, Facebook engineers created Ringmark, a visual demonstration that shows how well a given mobile device and mobile browser combo performs. Ringmark runs the device quickly through a series of tests and shows how many “rings” or levels of tests the device/browser was able to jump through.

Ringmark was catapulted into a W3C project, the Core Mobile Web Platform Community Group. The group’s goal is to get more developers to make mobile web apps, a feat it will accomplish by creating standards that will make mobile web development a more pleasant process and by holding mobile browser vendors and mobile device manufacturers to those standards.

“Responsibility is a big work, but pulling together this working group has been easy,” said Pearce. “I think the industry was ready for that to happen, and we think of ourselves as good industry citizens. We do think we have a responsibility.”

But organizing the group hasn’t been without its challenges. Apple and Google were invited to participate, but neither company chose to be involved, even though they make the two most popular mobile browsers in use today.

“Everyone else in the industry has the motivation to see this be successful,” said Pearce, carefully skirting any direct condemnation of the iOS and Android makers. “I can’t see any reason why a browser vendor would not want to maximize the number of apps that will run in that runtime.”


Mozilla: Forever the ally

Mozilla didn’t hesitate to join Facebook and is now one of the more important community group partners. For ages, Mozilla has spearheaded better standards for browsing the web, framing a consumer-friendly conversation and provoking older browsers like Internet Explorer into new and innovative territory.

First codenamed Fennec, Mozilla’s browser for mobile devices began its life several years ago as a buggy but still thrilling alpha product. Due to Apple’s policies of vertical lockout, you can’t download this mobile version of Firefox on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, so Fennec eventually turned into Firefox for Android. The experience was revolutionary. The mobile browser could sync open tabs and bookmarks with the desktop version, and it made leaps of progress in the mobile browser territory.

“iPhone and iPad are clearly great experiences,” said Mozilla VP Jay Sullivan in a long and winding conversation late last year. “But certain pieces of hardware running certain OSes driven by a gatekeeper, we think that is not great in the long term for openness, choice and innovation… And it’s not great for developer innovation.”

Mozilla was in a unique position to improve the mobile browsing experience in ways that would prompt radical change on the part of more mainstream mobile browser makers (Apple and Google). And the Mozilla Foundation was in a unique position to champion the mobile web free of any bias or ties to a mobile operating system.

So, for Mozilla, nothing was more natural than partnering with Facebook (another OS-neutral tech company) to work on making the mobile web a better place to develop, to browse, to play, and to work. The Foundation is actively working on a distribution center for mobile web apps, as well — a sort of mobile-web version of the App Store and the Android Market put together — that Facebook says is one of the biggest missing pieces in convincing developers to take the mobile web as a platform more seriously.


Yahoo: The heavy tech behind the scenes

Yahoo, however, is also platform-neutral when it comes to mobile operating systems, and it’s very active in creating technologies specifically for the mobile web.

I’ve had an ongoing conversation with Yahoo VP Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz over the past few months about Node.js, a rather trendy technology that allows developers to run JavaScript on the server side. What this and Yahoo’s related developments mean for the mobile web is less code duplication and better performance on spotty wireless networks.

“On the desktop, you can get away with murder, but on mobile, it’s another story,” Fernandez-Ruiz told me. “You’re on a 3G network, an edge network, you get packet loss, you get disconnected for a while. It makes the experience on mobile phones and tablets much worse than on your PC at home.”

A big part of Yahoo’s solution is a toolkit it’s building around Node.js. This toolkit is collectively called Cocktails. The company first starting talking about Cocktails at the end of 2011 and open-sourced Mojito, the first of several Cocktails, earlier this month.

“Node.js is, in a way, like a browser that runs on the server,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “The browser on the mobile phone isn’t that powerful, so Node.js becomes more important.”

Yet in spite of all this activity and advocacy around making the mobile web better, Yahoo has not joined the W3C group along with Facebook and Mozilla. Yahoo is a member of W3C, and Gil Yehuda, the company’s open source director, services as its representative on the Advisory Committee representative. However, Yahoo is not involved in any of the mobile-focused groups under W3C’s purview.

It’s worth noting that the W3C mobile web group was formed at a time of unprecedented tension between Yahoo and Facebook. In the middle of March, Yahoo filed a patent lawsuit against Facebook. In typical patent-law fashion, Facebook fired back with a patent suit of its own.

For now, one interesting and powerful voice is being left out of the conversation, but it’s not even the most deafening silence in this community group.


Google: The conflicted isolationist

Without question, the voice most missed in the W3C conversation is that of Google. One of the two most popular mobile-browser vendors in the world, Google owns and operates the Android mobile OS, which now has two separate mobile browsers: Chrome for Android and the native Android browser. (Of course, those two competing products will eventually be combined.)

One would think Google would be all over the W3C group, having so much at stake in the matter and being so frequently vocal about mobile openness and innovation.

“With Chrome for Android in particular, we thought about how we’d build a mobile browser from the ground-up, including thinking about how to make it run much, much faster taking advantage of hardware acceleration capabilities in Android,” an unnamed Google spokesperson told us via email.

It’s clear the company does indeed care about making its own version of the mobile web a best-in-class experience for both developers and users — and it’s in the company’s financial best interest to do so.

The spokesperson said the new Chrome on Android mobile browser, which just launched in February, brings a different approach to tabs and navigation that makes it simpler for a normal consumer to use. The rep continued, “We’re actively exploring how to take advantage of Android’s multi-layered security model now that we’ve built the world’s first multi-processor mobile browser. We are evaluating additional features like sandboxing for individual tabs within Chrome.”

It sounds like Chrome for Android is aiming to become the best-in-class kind of browser that Facebook et al. are attempting to regulate or mandate or at least define. So why is Google not coming to Facebook’s table?

Answering that question is simple and so very complicated at the same time. I’m not sure any two companies in Silicon Valley have developed as much enmity between them as have Google and Facebook.

It started when Facebook began nipping at Google’s heels in terms of ad revenue several years ago. Nowadays, Facebook is a legitimate contender for online ad dollars. Even though the social network’s ad take is still a fraction of Google’s, it poses a threat. Any competition is a threat when advertising makes up 96 percent of your revenue.

And based on that low-level inherent tug-of-war for revenue, Facebook and Google are more or less destined to dine at separate tables in perpetuity.

The other issue is that, in addition to running a mobile web browser, Google is also running a mobile operating system and has a certain amount of investment in keeping a somewhat walled garden of approved native applications that are distributed through a proprietary marketplace. While the company naturally claims no conflict of interest between the two aims, it doesn’t have the ability to achieve same level of agnosticism in the native-versus-web debate that’s ripping the mobile industry a new one.


When mobile titans compete, who wins?

The primary dictum of capitalism is that competition is good for everybody. But while that may or may not be true for some aspects of business, it’s much less certain whether competition is good when it comes to something as universal as the standards to which we, the technology industry, decide to build the mobile web.

In fact, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook seem to be the only three major parties that can’t come together on this issue. Verizon and AT&T are working together in the W3C mobile web group. HTC and Nokia and Samsung are all participating with one another. It’s not the carriers and it’s not the OEMs — it’s the software makers themselves that are holding back, embroiled in lawsuits and the cutthroat competition of a lifetime.

In my fantasy world, Google and Facebook and Mozilla and Yahoo and all the brilliant men and women who make those companies up would be able to sit down at the ultimate round table and hash out a mobile web that was good for everyone — great for developers, great for users, great for manufacturers. Everyone would win.

But in my fantasy world, there are no lawyers, no patent trolls, no limited streams of income, and definitely no online advertising. In the imperfect world, where lawyers and advertising rule the day, the round table is broken, and the deafening din of talk about the mobile web remains fraught with discord.

Image courtesy of Rafael Edwards

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