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One thing I don’t like at all about Silicon Valley culture is its monomaniacal focus on Hugeness: on the very biggest companies and websites.

Living in said valley, we get bombarded with news and gossip about what Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and a couple of others are doing (Yahoo and Microsoft, no longer considered “cool”, are slowly dropping off the list.) The tech press acts like the Internet is defined by the actions of these few companies. Whatever they’re doing, everybody else had better copy it, or risk irrelevance. You don’t matter unless you’ve got hundreds of millions of users and are raking in billions of dollars of advertising money.

(I imagine even Google and Facebook must feel the pressure to copy Google and Facebook! Why else do they keep trying so hard to break into each others’ markets?)

Part of Silicon Valley culture is the assumption that the destiny of every company or website is to become huge or to fail: those are the only two options. Global reach, with tens or hundreds of millions of users, is the only definition of success. Venture capitalists are known to base their gambles upon the idea that the profits from one one breakaway hit will pay for the losses from twenty flops. The breakaway hits are what they’re after; a modest but sustainably profitable company is not.

There are structural reasons for this attitude. The lack of barriers to competition on the web means no longer do you just have your neighbors to compete with. You have to compete with everyone in the world. That means that if company X offers something even 1% better than its competition, it can rapidly become a global near-monopoly. And so many web-based activities have network effects — sites like LinkedIn, eBay, etc. become more useful the more other people are using them, so success tends to snowball.

I feel this attitude misses something important. It misses what made the web so interesting in the first place. Think back to 1995 (if you’ve been on the internet that long). What was so exciting about the emerging medium? What was it that pulled you in for the first time?

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Ex-Mozillanoid JWZ writes of his “ongoing Kafka-esque nightmare of dealing with Palm and their App Catalog submission process.” (Part One) (Part Two).

His story shows, by counterexample, exactly why the Open Web is important. Part of the working definition I came up with in my previous post was that on the open web, no company can get between a developer who wants to publish something and a user who wants to use it. JWZ’s story shows what happens in a non-open environment when a company, Palm in this case, does get in the way. JWZ’s applications were innocuous free software which posed no conceivable threat to Palm in any way, and he didn’t even want to charge anything for them; nevertheless, Palm’s bureaucracy prevented JWZ from giving away his own software to people who wanted it.

When this happens, developers and users both lose.

Palm is not unique in this regard. The process for getting apps approved on the iPhone is no less opaque:

We’ve been getting more and more questions from customers wondering where the heck our iPhone App is. Unfortunately, we have no idea.

Despite sending a steady stream of emails to Apple requesting status updates, we continue to receive generic form letters in response – frustrating, to say the least.

Say what you like about Microsoft, but they never barred independent software developers from developing and distributing Windows software, did they?

A very snazzy video.

OK, let’s say I’m an amateur game developer. I’ve got an idea for a computer game where players build and manage a space colony and terraform an alien planet. I’d like to write it as a hobby project and play it against my friends.

First thing I gotta do is pick a platform. What are my options?

In theory, I could develop for a video game console. But that means super-expensive software development kits, and hardware-specific programming techniques, and besides, the company that controls the console will get to decide whether to allow my game or not. Console games are not practical for a hobbyist developer. I’d better write a computer game instead.

I could write my game for Mac OS X, using Cocoa or whatever. I’d have some pretty snazzy developer tools for building my user-interface, but only Mac users would be able to play it; that’s a pretty big drawback.

I could write my game for Windows. Same deal; snazzy tools, but only people with Windows could play it. As a one-man project, I don’t have the resources to maintain parallel Mac and Windows versions. And what about Linux users?

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Here at Mozilla we talk about “The Open Web” a lot. We talk about it all the time. It’s one of our causes. The word “open” appears seven times in our (very short) Manifesto. We have a proposal for a project called Drumbeat which aims to get people acting as “stewards of the open web”.

But what does “open web” actually mean?

Recently my coworker Jinghua asked me what the Open Web means in concrete terms. “Don’t give me abstractions or generalities”, she said, “tell me one specific reason that users should care.”

Daaaang. That’s a good question!

Is “The Open Web” a thing that exists now, or is it an ideal that we are trying to bring into existence? Is the openness or closedness of the web a binary distinction, or a sliding scale? How is it related to open-source software? Is it just a theoretical conceit of us web purists? Above all why is it something that users should care about?

There is not a single answer to this question; there are many answers.

Here’s one: the open web is a world where kids can teach themselves how to hack.

Here’s another: the open web is a world where people can write a subversive-but-legal tool to make U.S. Judicial records freely searchable. (Both blog posts by Atul Varma.)

I’ve been ruminating over some answers of my own; I’ll explain them in future blog posts.