Mozilla’s tech evangelist on the web’s immortality: The Memeburn interview

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Robert Nyman could be the geek of all geeks. As the Swedish-based Technical Evangelist for Mozilla, Nyman is a strong believer in HTML5 and the Open Web. In the app era, while everyone is slagging off the web, he remains a big fan and feels it will flourish.

Nyman argues that the web is neither dead nor dying. He sees the app evolution as a way to bridge the gap between the current web experience and to offer “findability and monetisation in a simple way”. The web will always be there, he says, because it offers “openness and freedom” and unmatched capabilities available for everyone. A weakness of the medium though is that it needs to find ways to meet “the attractiveness” of app stores.

Memeburn caught up with Nyman to chat about the changing technology environment.

Memeburn: On your blog, you write that, “The web is one of the most important things mankind has”. How does this statement fit into your belief that the web should be an open and democratic platform for everyone?

Robert Nyman: I think it’s so very important that we make sure the web is available for as many as possible. We can’t let one or a few companies own the entire online experience and not have country borders decide what you can access. The web is instrumental for everyone when it comes to learning and sharing, and we need to protect that.

MB: There is talk that the web is on its way out, and we’re looking at a more closed, appified internet experience. Do you agree with this?

RN: No. We’ve seen an enormous update when it comes to apps, especially in the mobile sector. I don’t see this as the web on its way out — rather that this meets the gap in the current web experience and offer findability and monetisation in a simple way. What I see now is that most developers build apps using web technologies like HTML5 since building something specific for each platform out there, with varying programming languages, is not justifiable time nor cost wise. Also, with the web, all service providers own the content, whereas with most app markets you are in the hands of the app market owner.

I think the app stores have been great when it comes to pushing things that needed a push, but I’m not sure how big they are or which success they will have in a few years. I see them more as a state of transformation, as a step to the next level.

MB: The web is under attack by blackhat SEO practitioners, poor quality content and just the sheer weight of content out there — with all this happening, can Google win the battle to serve quality, relevant content?

RN: Google definitely has a big challenge here and it’s important that they continue to improve (which I’m sure they will), but the upside is that there’s good competition going on in the search engine sector with Microsoft’s Bing and others offering options and alternatives.

MB: There is no shortage of information and content in the digital age, but our attention spans are limited — so are people preferring closed ecosystems like that of Apple’s App Store and Facebook, where there is more of a guarantee of quality and relevance?

RN: We could discuss whether Apple’s App Store or Facebook offers more quality…. However, I think the point there is that it’s all in the same place, making it easier to find. And there the web has a challenge with reaching out to people with their services.

MB: Will HTML5 beat native mobile apps? Why?

RN: Well, I don’t necessarily believe something has to beat something else — they can happily co-exist, which is the way it is and will continue to be for some time. Also, HTML5 is being used within a huge number of mobile apps so you see a mix there. Personally, I believe the web will always be there since it offers such openness and freedom and unmatched capabilities available for everyone.

MB: What will the web look like in ten years time?

RN: It will be amazing and open! I think the biggest evolution will come to mobile devices. How we communicate and input information in them. Maybe they will all be voice-controlled or perhaps there is some other genius approach round the corner. I wish for more of a foldable device which can be used as a really small mobile phone, but also unfolded to full size with a keyboard when needed. And not weighing more than a feather, of course.

The most important thing for me isn’t about technical excellence, though. While interesting, I think it is far more important that more and more people can take part on the web. That’s what I hope for.

MB: Should people build separate mobile sites, or rather universal sites that are reactive to screen size and platform?

RN: It depends. Universal web sites that are responsive is overall the best approach that works best for more document-oriented web sites. But when we cross the border to web apps (Gmail etc) there might not be enough overlap, and building a separate version might make sense. Where do we draw the line, though? What’s mobile? Looking at the numerous screen sizes and resolutions we have out there it really is a grey area. I think the distinction is more about means of input (keyboard vs. virtual keyboard vs. small keyboards) and how we can make it as easy as possible for end users.

MB: One of the big problems about the world of mobile applications is that you have to develop multiple apps for multiple devices. It’s an industry in tremendous flux. Do you think we will in the future see a universal application standard, so you can develop once for all devices? (a Java-type model that works)

RN: What’s wrong with the web? We could use open web technologies like HTML5 and then the various mobile platforms could offer APIs for us to access to do all the things needed.

MB: Looking at the open ecosystems and the closed ecosystems that you’ve come across, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these?

RN: I wouldn’t say that a certain type of ecosystem, open or closed, automatically results in specific strengths or weaknesses by default. But looking at app stores, their strengths are ease-of-use for users, findability and monetisation for developers. Their weaknesses are that they, not the app/content producer, is in control, and that you have to build something that just works on their device(s).

Comparing that to the web, which I guess you refer to as the open ecosystem, is that anyone can take part of the content, and also that they can contribute to creating it. Just look at the enormous impact of Wikipedia and other similar initiatives. It’s available on virtually every platform, from computers, laptops, tablets, game devices and so on. And as a creator, all you really need is a text file editor.

The weakness of the web is that it needs to find ways to meet the attractiveness of app stores.

MB: What are some of the fundamental ways HTML5 and CSS3 have evolutionised the web?

RN: I think the biggest ways have been that all major players are supporting it: Google, Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla, Opera and many many more. It is so well needed that we reach consensus about a way forward and that has been vital for the evolution we’re seeing. Technically, I’m excited by all the APIs that allow us to do so much more in web browsers with just a few lines of code. I think they have also evolutionized the web by being available on a myriad devices out there.

MB: In a presentation about how HTML5 will change the web, you say that a lot of people still ask “what is HTML5?” How would you explain to them what it is and how it can benefit them? Web designers etc…

RN: HTML5 is the next evolution of both HTML and scripting possibilities on the web. It is meant to bring richer semantics, better native user interfaces, form validation and also a number of APIs to build powerful end user experiences. It is basically about making the web better, more usable and appealing for everyone.

MB: What are the key differences between HTML5 and CSS3?

RN: HTML5 is HTML elements and some APIs for JavaScript. CSS3 is just CSS, which is only there for presentational purposes.

MB: What are your favourite features of HTML5?

RN: When it comes to things that are true HTML5, I think the video and canvas elements, Web Storage and Web Sockets. When it comes to APIs commonly referred to as HTML5 (but in reality, a separate specification) I quite like the File API.

MB: It is said that the evolution from HTML 3 to HTML5 has moved from how things look to what things mean. What other key aspects should be noted in the evolution of HTML 3 to HTML5

RN: Well, HTML3 is 15 years old so that hasn’t been in a use since the end of the 1990s. HTML4 is close to 13 years old and have together with XHTML been the de facto standards till a few years ago. I think the key things with the evolution to HTML5 is that it has been a more practical approach, looking at what web developers need and how web browsers actually render things.

MB: What does HTML5 mean for SEO? Do the new tag elements get preference on search crawlers?

RN: There is some discussion on that, and naturally the search providers are aware of them and take them into account. However, there hasn’t been any clear information on just how much they affect things, and companies like Google aren’t, for good reason, too willing to give away more exact details on how things are being ranked.

MB: You describe the open platform of the browsers and the importance of consensus among the Big Players, can you elaborate on how these school of thoughts conflict/cohere. Are there bullying tactics going on by the giants?

RN: I would say that people from all major companies know each other and share a mutual respect. There’s not really any bullying, just some friendly cheeky teasing sometimes. All companies have different interests, and most of them are in it for the money. So naturally it’s about finding common ground to have things everyone will benefit from, and focus on building good services than just trying to control and own certain technologies.

MB: If Google decide, ‘No more Flash’, what will that mean for YouTube?

RN: It would be an interesting move, for sure. I would personally really like that, since we now have support for native video directly in web browsers. Flash will still be around for a long time, but just used for other things, probably suited better for Flash.

MB: Do you have any framework preferences? For web? For mobile?

RN: I usually refrain from saying that, because I believe everyone need to look to their context and needs, and find the best fit for that. There’s no one-size-fits-all, no silver bullet.

MB: What’s your favourite mobile platform? Why?

RN: I only have proper experience with iOS and Android so I can talk about those. I like Android for being Open Source and I think notifications and intents are good. However, as an end user, I think iOS offers a vastly superior user experience.

MB: We face a dizzying array of mobile platforms and technologies… which should we prioritise and why?

RN: I don’t think we should prioritise any, I think we should keep to open standards and technologies and make it available for as many as possible. Remember back when we had web sites that only worked in Internet Explorer and with one resolution? We don’t want to go back to that, we want to do things better this time around.

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