Berners-Lee warns of 'walled gardens' for mobile Internet

Web guru stresses importance of open platforms for innovation

There may be all kinds of technology issues, business plan problems and potential failures to address before the mobile Internet becomes a success. But for Tim Berners-Lee there's really only one issue.

On the opening day of Mobile Internet World in Boston, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web told a packed hall that the mobile Internet needs to be fully and completely the Internet, nothing more and nothing less. It needs to be free of central control, universal, and embodied in open standards.

"The Web is an open platform on which you build other things," he said. "That's how you get this innovation. The Web is universal: you can run it on any hardware, on any operating system, it can be used by people of different languages...It's a sandbox where people can [play and] exercise their creativity. It's very important to keep the Web universal as we merge the Internet with mobile."

The title of his talk was "Escaping the Walled Garden: Growing the Mobile Web with Open Standards." The "walled garden" is the metaphor that describes today's cable TV and cellular data networks, where subscribers can only use devices authorized by the carrier, and can only access content and services authorized by the carrier, the exact opposite of the World Wide Web running over the IP-based Internet, which cell phone users access from their home and work PCs.

Though Berners-Lee didn't mention Google's new foray into mobile services, the search giant's Android platform, a software development stack for mobile phones, is based on open standards, open source software and overseen by the newly organized Open Handset Alliance consortium.

PC users through an ISP can access independent movies on any site that offers them, Berners-Lee said. By contrast, a cable TV company acting as an ISP could block such access, because it wants subscribers to select the pay-per-view movies it alone offers.

Berners-Lee is director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which coordinates the work of its members to create Web standards and guidelines for the Web's evolution. Two years ago, the group launched the Mobile Web Initiative to focus on standards to facilitate access to the Web by handheld devices over wireless connections. The focus of the MWI is to create standards and best practices for authoring content, and for serving it to and displaying it on any mobile device. Content becomes easily reusable, and can be re-used in ways the original creator could never imagine, he said.

"An open platform means using standards," Berners-Lee told his audience. "The mobile internet must use the same standards as the Internet. When you erect a wall around the garden, we know now all the flowers bloom outside the wall, not inside."

As an example of what not to do, he referred to a "well-known device" that lets you go to only one online music store to buy music downloads, an obvious reference to Apple's wildly popular iPod and the company's online iTunes store. "Being able to go to any store would open that whole model up," he said. Consumers would have more choice, he suggested, there would be more competition, and more innovation, a kind of virtual circle of Web-inspired and Web-based activity.

The Web itself is undergoing change, Berners-Lee said, as a result of people's new uses of it. Until recently, the dominant metaphor for the Web was the HTML document or poage. But that's changing as a result of the rise of social Web sites such as FaceBook and mySpace. Today, users have to create at each site a document that lists their friends or contacts or buddies. "But what's important is the friends, not the document or Web page," he said.

Mobile internet standards coupled with the techniques and standards for the semantic Web (a framework for machine-to-machine data sharing) will create a kind of individualized information personality that users can carry with them anywhere and express in different contexts based on the available devices, displays and information needs. Book a flight from your home PC, have the essential details stored in your mobile phone, which then can "negotiate" with a large LED screen in an office or a coffee shop to show directions to the airport and a map of the nearest parking garage, for example.

"People have seen the benefits of open platforms," he said. "They have seen what the open Web is like. There's a huge understanding of its importance."

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