Twenty years on, the Web faces new openness challenges

CERN set the Web on fire by releasing open software without royalty payment requirements. Two decades later, proprietary technology has found a foothold.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
CERN's original Web browser running on a NeXT machine in 1993
CERN's original Web browser running on a NeXT machine in 1993. CERN

Two decades ago today, the European particle accelerator called CERN gave birth to what's known as the open Web -- a technology that anyone can build without paying licensing or royalty fees.

But as the Web has grown ever more popular and sophisticated, proprietary technology poses a challenge to that philosophy of openness. The challenge is most clear in the area of video, where patents and copy protection are at odds with the Web's openness.

Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at CERN, started developing what he called the World Wide Web in 1989. After CERN released the software for free on April 30, 1993, the Web spread like wildfire to become a global publishing medium.

On Tuesday, CERN republished the world's first Web site as part of a project to reconstruct its earliest Web content and spotlight its move toward openness.

Early openness
Berners-Lee and CERN chose to follow the royalty-free footsteps of earlier Internet technologists. In opting for openness, they helped ensure seminal software such as the TCP/IP networking standard spread faster and therefore ultimately won out over proprietary alternatives such as IBM's Token Ring, Digtal Equipment's DECnet, and Novell's IPX/SPX.

The HTML source code for the world's first Web page, now republished at CERN
The HTML source code for the world's first Web page, now republished at CERN. Stephen Shankland/CNET

As the Web grew, its plumbing remained relatively open. Its standards organization, the World Wide Web Consortium, explicitly shuns patent-encumbered technology. And when Unisys started demanding patent royalties for GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) graphics, the W3C helped to create a royalty-free format, PNG (Portable Network Graphics).

The arrival of video on the Web has brought a different dynamic for two reasons: patents and digital rights management. For years, most Web video was one step removed from the Web, though, using Adobe Systems' Flash Player. People could watch video with their browsers, but the proprietary technology used Adobe's plug-in rather than Web standards themselves.

Now, though, Flash is on the wane, and the proprietary video technology is moving onto the Web itself.

Proprietary technology isn't necessarily a bad thing, though some organizations such as Firefox maker Mozilla oppose it. However, proprietary technology can impose costs on individuals and businesses that want to use the Web.

Video codec creep
The first proprietary encroachment is in the area of video compression. Just as JPEG, GIF, and PNG provide compress images for more efficient transmission and storage, technology called a codec compress video and audio.

The NeXT machine on which Tim Berners-Lee, in 1990, developed software to house Web sites and the browser to visit them
The NeXT machine on which Tim Berners-Lee, in 1990, developed software to house Web sites and the browser to visit them. CERN

The dominant compression codec, by far, is an industry standard called H.264 or AVC. It's used in video broadcasts, cameras, DVDs, and more. It's well understood, and processor support means devices such as smartphones can decode H.264 video without hurting battery life as much. But anyone using H.264 in software, hardware, discs, transmissions, or for-fee Net streaming video must pay patent licensing fees to patent holders through a group called MPEG LA. Flash Player includes support for H.264 as well as other codecs.

Graphics support was built into the Web since very early days, but video was not. But browser makers sought to change that during the last decade by updating the Web pages description language, Hypertext Markup Language, in a version now called HTML5.

When it came time to deal with the codec issue, though, standards setters punted. H.264 was popular but patent-encumbered, and the main royalty-free alternative at the time, a codec called Theora wasn't widely used and suffered from image-quality concerns.

Google now is trying to have it both ways, spending tens of millions of dollars to develop and promote a royalty-free codec called VP8, part of the streaming-video project it calls WebM. To try to dispel patent clouds hanging over VP8, Google signed a licensing agreement with MPEG LA, but Nokia argues its got VP8-related patents that it's not licensing.

H.264's universal presence on mobile devices makes it even harder to challenge the technology. Despite its loathing for patent barriers, Mozilla capitulated to H.264's dominance and started building support so Firefox could play H.264 video when an operating system supports it. That support is in iOS, Android, Windows 7 and 8, and OS X.

The codec war isn't over, though. Google is working on VP9 and still is working to advance VP8. The newest battleground is a peer-to-peer video and audio chat standard called WebRTC that stands to bring Skype-like abilities to Web apps. Google and some allies are trying to specify VP8 support as a mandatory part of the WebRTC standard, though they face serious opposition.

DRM on the Web
Another fractious area is digital rights management, technology that restricts what people can do with content such as movies or music. DRM can be used to keep people from copying TV shows, sharing music with friends, or watching a rented movie after a 24-hour period has expired.

Tim Berners-Lee and his creation, the World Wide Web, in 1994
Tim Berners-Lee and his creation, the World Wide Web, in 1994. CERN

Here, too, Flash Player brought DRM to Web browsers, though Netflix opted to use Microsoft's rival plug-in Silverlight.

When HTML5 incorporated video abilities, there was no provision for DRM. Now, allies including Google, Microsoft, and Netflix are building it with technology called EME (Encrypted Media Extensions). EME doesn't actually have DRM, but it does provide a mechanism by which a Web page can call upon a DRM module, which means people could watch Web video without relying on Flash or Silverlight.

Web standards leader Ian Hickson has blasted DRM on the Web, and more recently the Free Software Foundation has tried to rally opposition to the W3C's involvement in standardizing EME.

For all the flaws of DRM, though, including any number of encryption schemes that fell to cracker's efforts, it doesn't appear likely to go away. If the EME door to proprietary technology is closed at W3C, DRM video likely will live on through plug-ins, nonstandard features in browsers, or through apps that sidestep the Web altogether.

Still more open
Despite these issues, the Web remains remarkably open, both in the technology it's built upon and its content. It's easy to focus on obstacles to using the Web, but overall, the barriers for building Web sites and services are generally very low.

That's what's made it possible for countless businesses to set up shop on the Internet, building a remarkably interconnected, global network of information.