The open web is not going away

Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, and Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, recently posted calls to arms (of sorts) in defense of the “open web.”

I, too, am a believer in the open web — a platform that anyone can hack on powered by standards (http) and great technology (servers, devices, browsers). It delivers on the promise of the Internet: a world in which everyone is connected, and you can command as much attention as your content deserves (no matter your budget or connections).

But I agree with them that it is threatened by dominant technology companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple who have an economic interest in creating their own “walled gardens” of Internet content that they control and monetize.

In Facebook’s “walled garden” there is only Facebook content posted by your Facebook friends, so why venture anywhere else? Evan Williams (founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium) has gone so far as to say that in the future, “individual websites won’t matter.” In the future Internet, he believes there will only be large, closed Internet-company-controlled walled gardens. This is the raison d’etre of his new company Medium, a curated walled garden for content.

The advantage of services like Facebook and Medium is that they provide a great experience for users over the messy Wild West of the open web. The disadvantage is their content algorithms control what is distributed, and publishers are limited to the services they choose to build. It’s a trade-off of ease of use and utility over freedom and creativity. Shouldn’t there be a way to have both?

There absolutely is, but it will take a lot of effort, time and money — billions of dollars — to build. Unlike Dries, I don’t think this is a problem of regulation. It’s economics. Until the open web industry can muster a level of investment in our technology appropriate for our importance, we will be at a competitive disadvantage to our competitor industries — and a source of frustration for our customers and users.

But in the absence of this, the open web remains earth’s most powerful communication tool. More money is invested in websites ($190 billion) than all of digital advertising ($154 billion). But Facebook, Medium and other closed-distribution platforms would prefer to command that attention and budget.

The open web is not keeping up with the wider technology industry.

The better Facebook is relative to open web, the more time is spent on Facebook instead of the web, and the more their business gains at the expense of other destinations on the Internet. I like Facebook as much as anyone else, but I think it’s important for the open web to thrive, as well.

For the open web to survive, website owners will need to be able to create more and more compelling experiences that can compete with the experiences walled gardens can provide. But the truth is, the open web is not keeping up with the wider technology industry. In fact, it’s falling further and further behind.

Here is a small example:

Here in San Francisco for some amazing reason you get decent LTE coverage on BART (the subway). More than once I’ve been on the train reading Twitter and have had the experience of clicking the link and having 1) the website be down spewing 503s or 2) the website be so horribly unoptimized for mobile that the content was impossible to read.

Slow down and think about this for a second:

  • You can get Internet on a subway! And it’s fast too!

  • Twitter didn’t exist until 2006, and smartphones didn’t exist until 2007.

  • Phone speed, battery life and Internet bandwidth gets continually better every year.

And the weakest link in the entire stack of technology is the BROKEN website at the other end. A technology that has been around since 1989. Hey, open web friends! We’ve been doing this for 27 years. How is it that we are increasingly becoming the weakest link in the entire Internet technology stack?

Here’s the problem with the open web — economics: 

  • Internet: $2.4 trillion global industry; market leader, AT&T (revenue $147 billion/240,000 employees)

  • Smartphones: $272 billion industry; market leader, Apple (revenue $233 billion/115,000 employees)

  • Social platforms: $24 billion industry; market leader, Facebook (revenue $18 billion/12,600 employees)

Open web technology companies include Automattic, Acquia, WPEngine and Pantheon (my company). Combined, our yearly revenues are < $300 million (0.5 percent of Google’s). Add in companies like Wix, Weebly, SquareSpace and GoDaddy and you are still just scratching the surface in terms of market share.

No one web company has achieved critical mass (yet), by which I mean billions in revenue and the ability to employ thousands of engineers who can invest in building truly great, scaled technology products and platforms.

It does need to get better. And not a little better — a LOT better.

In the absence of large, direct investment in open web products, there is no way we should expect our industry (the open web) to keep pace with the walled-garden products and services built by Facebook or device makers like Apple. In the arms race of technologies and consumer attention, the platform companies have mechanized weaponry and the open web is still armed with bow and arrow.

What about open source?

The open web has gotten a huge boost from the rise of open-source content management systems, Drupal and WP specifically. Combined, 65 percent of all CMS websites use these platforms, double what it was five years ago. That number is quickly rising to 80 percent.

How did they do this? These open-source ecosystems are some of the largest in the world, right up there with Linux.

The rise of the open-source CMS systems (Drupal, WP) has been the single biggest technology contribution to the open web. Huge credit goes to Dries Buytaert and Matt Mullenweg; without their leadership and the communities they spawned, the open web would be much worse off.

But here is the difference between Drupal/WordPress and Linux:

Eighty percent of Linux contributors (9,000 developers) are paid contributors. Intel, Samsung, IBM, Google and more than 1,000 companies pay for these engineers. These companies are sponsoring billions of dollars’ worth of technology investment into Linux. Why? Because >$1 trillion of market cap relies on this core technology. Google, IBM and RedHat’s businesses could not exist in their present form without Linux, so it’s in their economic interest to invest in the technology.

How many paid contributors to WordPress and Drupal are there? Maybe a few dozen. WordPress and Drupal lack the corporate sponsors of Linux because our open web companies have yet to get to critical mass.

That’s the difference between Linux and the open web.

The future of the open web

I believe the open web is too important, too vital and too large of an industry (at $190 billion it’s bigger than digital advertising) to wither on the vine. It’s not going away.

But it does need to get better. And not a little better — a LOT better.

The same expectations you have for modern software (think Gmail, Twitter, Slack) should apply to your company’s website. It should be intuitive to use and update, and should be fast, stable and scalable.

Creatives, website designers and developers should all have an amazingly powerful set of tools that automate ALL the plumbing and grunt work so they can focus their precious time on creating amazing fast, responsive, web experiences.

To get there will require billions (not millions) of dollars of technology investment, combined with the limitless talents and vibrancy of the amazing open source web ecosystem.