This lack of standard implementation across the browser market is just another form of a format war. Whilst they might all appear to be collaborating on the future of the web realistically they’re all fighting for their version of the web to become the standard. No longer is a company able to release a product like IE6 onto the market that plays fast and loose with the standards in favour of delivering more functionality as that will more than likely end up being ignored by the web development community. Now the war is mostly being raged through standards committees, but that doesn’t mean the same old strong arming tactics aren’t being used.
Last week Google announced that it would no longer be supporting the H.264 codec for the HTML5 <video> tag. The post triggered wide spread discussion about the future of the HTML5 standard and Google felt the need to clarify its position:
Why is Google supporting WebM for the HTML tag?
This week’s announcement was solely related to the HTML tag, which is part of the emerging set of standards commonly referred to as “HTML5.” We believe there is great promise in the tag and want to see it succeed. As it stands, the organizations involved in defining the HTML video standard are at an impasse. There is no agreement on which video codec should be the baseline standard. Firefox and Opera support the open WebM and Ogg Theora codecs and will not support H.264 due to its licensing requirements; Safari and IE9 support H.264. With this status quo, all publishers and developers using the tag will be forced to support multiple formats.
On the surface it would appear that Google is attempting to use its share of the browser market to put some pressure on the HTML5 standards committee to make WebM or Theora the default codec for <video> tag. For the most part that’s true and should they get their way Google will have control over yet another aspect of the web (in contrast to now when they’re just the dominating player thanks to YouTube). However whilst such a move might at first appear to only benefit Google, Mozilla and Opera I believe that a push away from H.264 is beneficial for everyone on the web, except for Microsoft and Apple.
You see whilst there’s no official agreement on what the default codec should be for HTML5 there are in fact 2 groups within the standards committee that agree wholeheartedly on which one should be the standard. Google, Mozilla and Opera all believe that WebM or Ogg Theora (or both!) should be the default standard whilst Apple and Microsoft both want H.264. The reason behind that is quite obvious when you look at the patent body responsible for licensing the H.264 technology, the MPEG-LA. Both Apple and Microsoft are have patents in the MPEG-LA patent pool meaning they have a vested interest in making it the default standard. This is the main reason why having H.264 as the default is bad Internet users and web standards as it would force anyone who develops HTML5 products using video to license the H.264 codec, something which could be quite devastating to early stage start ups. Additionally it encumbers what should be a completely open and free standard with licensing requirements, something that hasn’t been present in any web standard to date.
Whilst the decision doesn’ affect me directly, no matter which way it goes, I can’t support something that has the potential to stifle innovation like a licensing requirement does. Google throwing its weight behind its own and other open codecs has highlighted the issue succinctly and hopefully this will lead to more productive discussion around which (if any) codec will become the standard for HTML5. We’re still a long way from having a fully formalised version of HTMl5 that anyone can implement but it’s good to see some movement on this front, even if it’s just one web giant poking the trolls.
If there’s one trendthat I’ve noticed about any of the successful Internet businesses of the past decade or so is that they tend to be platforms on which others can build their business. Sure there are many highly successful companies that operate in a closed fashion but the trend towards a more open web is undeniable. Nearly every successful Internet based company allows some form of interoperability with the wider world allowing anyone to leverage the platform for their own purposes. Thus today for any fledgling start up the choice on whether or not to open up your service for others to use has already been made for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad thing.
There are many great examples of companies as a platform dating back to the early days after the dot com bust. One of the examples that sticks in my mind is eBay which started out as a simple way for anyone to sell their unwanted goods online. Quickly though people realised that eBay was in essence a cheap online shop front, much cheaper than many of the alternatives available at the time. This quickly snowballed and many niche businesses found their home on eBay using the brand to get exposure and the platform to grow a business that wouldn’t have been possible before.
The examples flow thick and fast for nearly all of the current Internet giants. Facebook has shown that whilst its core of replicating your friendship online remains it’s now a gaming platform and promotion network. Twitter owes quite a lot of success to its wide open API which has generated hundreds of quality applications, drove adoption of the service and makes it the de facto target for any Internet mash-up (even Geon!). So why does being an open platform do so much for driving adoption of a service?
Primarily it appears to be due to the amount of free development that one can receive by making their services available to developers. Twitter for the longest time didn’t have an official mobile application, arguably the killer app for something that’s based around short frequent updates. Still that didn’t mean there were a lack of clients available for it like Echofon, Tweetdeck and Brizzly. Opening up their API meant that they could focus more on improving the service and developing new ideas rather than having to spend additional resources bringing their platform to where it was needed. This forms a positive feedback loop that enables the underlying platform to improve whilst ensuring that it still remains relevant to its users.
Of course this all relies on the idea that your service provides something of value to your users. For a lot of companies the services that they provide start out closed off in order to ensure that it functions as expected. Early on development time is at a premium and the additional resources required to ensure the platform is stable can outweigh the potential benefits of doing so. However once a critical mass of users is crossed it makes sense to open it up in order to drive adoption. A great example of this is Gowalla who only recently released a full API after being available for about 2 years.
For someone like myself who is seeking Internet fame and stardom the idea of being a platform underpins many of the decisions I make when developing a service. You see whilst I may think I know what people might want there are so many things that I just don’t think of when I’m elbow deep in my code. In fact about half of the features in the current version of Geon have come just from talking the idea over with my friends and people who’ve been in the business for some time. Keeping my service open means that should an enterprising user find something lacking they’re able to build it hopefully bringing more users to my service and giving them a little Internet e-cred.
Does this mean that every service that isn’t a platform is doomed to failure? Absolutely not. There are many things where an open API simply isn’t required like if the company themselves provides products that cater to their user’s needs succintly. Still the writing is on the wall for those who build things on the Internet and the more open your application is the more likely it will be picked up by the wider world. Google VP Andy Rubin said it best with the words “Open usually wins” and the recent decade of the Internet seems to agree with him.
I haven’t really blogged a lot about Android handsets mostly because I’ve never owned one of the beasts. My checkered past with the dominant supplier of hardware for the devices had me casting skeptical looks their way for the first year of Android’s existence but it’s become quite clear that since then they’ve managed to release some solid hardware backed up by ever improving software in both the platform and the applications that are being developed for it. The current Android darling (HTC EVO 4G) has been selling out with an almost Apple like fever across the United States. It seems that the Android platform has finally hit critical mass, and people are starting to take notice.
The most notable data points I have to support this view is the often quote number of Android handsets sold per day. Back in February Google announced, much to everyone’s surprise, that they were shipping around 60,000 Android handsets per day. It took another 3 months before they’d quote that same metric again where upon they stunned everyone by saying that their shipped volumes had grown to over 100,000 per day. Two days ago saw them quote this metric once again albeit with the staggering figure of 160,000 sold per day:
Android cofounder and Google vice president Andy Rubin just announced at the Droid X event that 160,000 Android devices are being sold per day. That’s up sharply from last month when Google announced that 100,000 Android devices were being activated each day.
As recently as February the number was just 60,000 per day. The Droid X will begin shipping on July 15 for $200. Given how hot the EVO is selling on Sprint, we can probably expect another jump in those Android sales numbers soon.
If you take those numbers as an average then you get Android sales of approximately 14.4 million per quarter. Compare that to the most recent figures from Apple on their iPhone at about 8.8 million per quarter then it becomes clear that Android is now a very serious competitor in the mobile space. Apple might not be worried though and there’s a good reason for that, they’re taking a leaf out of Nintendo’s book (hear me out here people).
You see long before the Wii was released Nintendo was struggling to keep up with other 2 of the major console gaming giants. Sony was dominating the market with their Playstation 2 and Nintendo’s current answer, the GameCube, wasn’t the smash hit that its past generations were. Knowing that they had to innovate or die Nintendo began the process of identifying their market and began to reform themselves around this idea. In essence their target market, the loyal customers of decades gone past, had grown up and now saw Nintendo’s offerings as childish. The now grown up gamers were more happy with the offerings of Sony and Microsoft respectively and Nintendo, not wanting to lose the family friendly title they’d earned themselves, began to look beyond the gamer title to discover their biggest untapped market: people who didn’t play games. The result is the Nintendo Wii a console that was so wildly popular that they were sold out constantly for months at a time. Nintendo knew that some of the biggest markets are the ones with people not using your products.
Contrasting this with the Apple vs Android battle the similarities to Nintendo start to become apparent. Apple only makes two handsets both of which are really the same product. Granted it’s a pretty good product that is arguably the cause for the creation of its current competitors. Android on the other hand is now available on a multitude of devices with plenty more in the pipeline from multiple manufacturers. For Android sales this means that there’s a handset to suit almost any mobile phone user out there opening up a much wider market than that of the iPhone. Thus many of the features reserved for the annals of the smartphone users have now trickled down to the lower end of the market. This is simply a market that Apple won’t capture because realistically, that’s not where the money is for them.
There are of course pitfalls to capturing such a wide market. Platform fragmentation is something that all developers wanting to bring their application onto Android handsets have to deal with. For good programmers it’s an easy but time consuming task to overcome as you either aim your application at the lowest common denominator thereby limiting its capabilities or you deliberately shut out a segment of the market, potentially damaging your revenue streams or potential user base. Whilst this could be overcome with faster response times from handset manufacturers with software updates it still stands as a barrier to developers adopting the Android platform and it remains to be seen how Google will cope with it.
Realistically even though I expect Android to become the dominate player in the smartphone market I don’t think Apple will be affected that much. They carved out their product niche a long time ago and the users they courted back then will remain loyal to them for a long time to come. Android with their shotgun approach to market domination will capture more users overall but I think that for a long time to come they’ll still be playing catch up with Apple in terms of market potential. In the end though the smartphone war means better products and a bigger catalog of handsets to choose from, a boon to consumers everywhere.
It’s one of those rare occasions where everyone wins. Apple gets their profitable niche, Google creates an open platform that anyone can use and we get ever more capable phones. Isn’t that just plain awesome?