Mozilla coder Robert O'Callahan has posted an impassioned treatise asking for web developers to think about 'the open web,' and in doing so has flagged one of Mozilla's planned projects: an open store for web apps.
Mozilla, the group behind the popular open source Firefox web browser, won't be the first to attempt to take the concept of an online repository for web applications to market. Google's Chrome Store has already beaten Mozilla to the punch, and Microsoft's upcoming store for Metro web apps is due to début with the launch of Windows 8, which includes the HTML5 touch-centric interface as standard.
O'Callahan argues that these are poor implementations, however. "I was very disappointed to see offline Gmail and Google Calendar restricted to being Chrome apps," he writes on his personal blog. "Even though Angry Birds works great in Firefox, its Chrome branding alone probably makes people think it only works in Chrome. To counter this we have to make sure that browser competition stays strong and offer developers browser-neutral Web app stores."
The reason for O'Callahan's desire to see an open standard emerge for web apps which isn't tied to a particular browser? The massive surge in web browsing from mobile devices, which has exploded since the launch of Apple's popular iPhone. "We need to be knocking down the barriers that make mobile app developers write native apps instead of Web apps - and we are," he writes. "We need to be promoting the development and use of Web apps instead of native mobile apps."
While open source projects for features such as video and executable code - Google's VP8 and Native Client stacks respectively - O'Callahan argues that they're not open enough. "We need to carefully distinguish good open standards from 'open-washed' single-vendor initiatives," he explains. "Not every proposed standard is good for the Web, even if it comes with an open-source implementation.
"I think when we promote the open Web we need to be very discerning about which specs we promote. Just because someone pushed out a draft spec with 'CSS' or 'HTML' or 'Web' in the name, and shipped a prefixed implementation, doesn't mean that that spec is, or should be, part of the open Web. People need to ask: is this feature good for the Web; is there a thorough draft spec that doesn't require reverse-engineering of an existing implementation; are there multiple implementations; is the spec actively edited with feedback from multiple vendors, and Web authors, being taken into account?
"It's unfortunate that only Mozilla - and maybe Opera - of the major browser vendors has no vested interest in the success of a non-open-Web platform," bemoans O'Callahan. "I'm glad I work here.
"It's a challenging time. It's an exciting time. Despite the threats I mentioned, it's great to see massive investment in improvements in open Web technology. It's great to see Microsoft moving away from Silverlight towards a standards-based platform. We've won some battles, but the war for open Web standards is not over and we need to keep fighting it, on the right fronts."
While details of Mozilla's planned web apps store are currently being kept under wraps, it seems clear that it will run as a competitor to the likes of Google's Chrome Store. Rather than browser-specific technologies - such as those used by Mozilla's Add-Ons service, which allows coders to develop extensions that add functionality into Mozilla-derived software - the group will encourage developers to offer apps that work on any modern browser, from its own Firefox to rivals including Opera, Chrome and Internet Exploder.
It's a bold move, but one thing is unclear: whether developers will be given the opportunity to charge for their applications. Currently, developers listing their wares on the Google Chrome Store - and, soon, the Windows 8 Metro equivalent - can choose to make them freely available or to levy a charge, with the company running the store providing a full transaction infrastructure for taking payment.
Without that in place, Mozilla's offering may be more open but is unlikely to attract the kind of following that O'Callahan clearly wants to see.