The elastic band of compatibilityThis post, like all posts here, is my personal opinion.
When it comes to the open, compatible web platform, I've been a True Believer since I read Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks
in college. It is my sincere belief that the web platform is fundamentally different from other platforms and is a tremendous force for good in society. But first it's useful to look at more traditional platforms that aren't based on standards (read: most every other platform). How traditional platforms work
These traditional platforms generally have one gatekeeper who is ultimately in charge and has the power to stop uses he doesn't like. On the plus side, these gatekeepers don't answer to anyone so they can innovate very quickly, and they're also incentivized to create new categories of platforms (where categories are things like desktops, smartphones, and smartwatches) so that they can monetize them.
They can be a tremendous force for good--but they aren't perfect. From society's perspective one downside is that gatekeeper incentives aren't always aligned with society's best interest (more on those in a later post, perhaps). For gatekeepers a downside is that any success will be hard won but ultimately fleeting.
I want to take a moment to dive into that latter downside. Where there are platforms competing within a category, there is strong competition (which is good) but for the most part it's a zero-sum game (which is not so good). In particular, innovation from one player does not often spill over to another player.
It's also an unstable equilibrium. That's because a platform, in many ways, is only as good as its apps. Further, developers (who make
the apps) will seek out opportunities to minimize the number of apps they have to write. This means that when the balance between platforms tips past a critical point, developers stop writing apps for the losing platform so the balance keeps tipping at an accelerating rate.
Ultimately one platform wins and the winner's incentive to innovate evaporates, often leading to a period of stagnation. This lasts until a new platform category inevitably comes onto the scene and eclipses the earlier category. Some winners are able to parlay success from an earlier round to a later one, but many aren't. If your platform won that last round, big whoop: in the grand scheme of things it was a temporary victory. From society's point of view, there are periods of innovation followed by periods of stagnation--but there's always a gatekeeper.How the open web platform works
The web is different for a simple reason: compatibility
. A number of players are competing within the same platform
. Innovation from one player often spills directly over to other players; it's a positive-sum game. There is no gatekeeper because if any player stagnates it's possible for someone else to swoop in with a compatible implementation and innovate.
For a lot of companies interested in building platforms, the fact that the web platform does not permit a single player to "win" is a deal breaker. Google, however, has grown up hand in hand with the web and has a deeply symbiotic relationship with it. In a very real way, Google's long-term success is tied to the success of the open web platform.The elastic band of compatibility
Compatibility is like an elastic band that ties the whole ecosystem (browser vendors, web developers, standards bodies, and end users) together and makes the sum greater than the individual parts. However, if everyone were just tied together tightly with no room to move--to innovate--then the web would never get any better. With innovation comes some healthy stretching of the elastic that ultimately helps pull the rest of the ecosystem upward. But if any one player pulls too hard then the elastic will break and everything that makes the web special would be gone. You'd have just another temporarily victorious platform with just another gatekeeper. It is in the web's--and Google's--long-term interest to keep that elastic band of compatibility taut but never in risk of breaking.
This logic is obvious--but only if you take the long-term perspective. In the short term it can be tempting for a player to think that the elastic is just holding him back (the gatekeepers of other platforms can innovate as fast as they want, after all) and miss how vitally important it is for the long-term success of the ecosystem.
I'm proud to be a member of the Blink team because I know that I'm surrounded by people who truly understand why that elastic band is so important (for proof, check out the guidelines for shipping new features at http://www.chromium.org/blink#new-features
, which emphasize standards, interoperability, conformance tests, and transparency). I've never been as excited for the open web as I am today.