This Is Why the WebKit Monoculture Is Bad, HTML5 DRM Is Already in Chrome

Google now has the same power Microsoft did with IE6 10 years ago

By on February 21st, 2013 18:21 GMT
One of the big concerns many people had when Opera announced it would stop developing its own layout engine and adopt WebKit, was that WebKit was becoming the de facto standard web.

They further argued that web standards will begin to lose their meaning once most of the browsers run WebKit and most of the websites are built with WebKit and WebKit alone in mind.

The retort was that, yes a monoculture is bad, but at least WebKit is a solid engine and provides great support for web standards.

The problem with this though is that, when one engine has so much influence, standards will be shaped in WebKit's mold rather than the other way around.

The other big problem with the WebKit monoculture is that WebKit, though an open source project with many contributors, is largely steered by Google and Apple, with Google taking the most active role.

What it means is that whatever Google wants it gets, if it wants a feature it doesn't need to discuss it with anyone or wait for a consensus, it can simply build it into WebKit and then start using it in Chrome.

More often than not, the other browser makers then implement the feature, since it's already built into WebKit.

Since WebKit completely dominates on the mobile web and has a sizeable chunk of the desktop web, that feature becomes a de facto standard, web developers can start using it, despite the fact that no other browser supports or wants to support it.

Again, this doesn't sound bad, after all, anything that can streamline the process through which a new technology becomes a reality on the web should be a good thing.

But as every benevolent dictator has proven in the past, once you have absolute power you're going to start using it for "evil."

Case in point, HTML5 DRM – an idea proposed by Google, Microsoft and Netflix. They've proposed a draft specification to the W3C for Encrypted Media Extensions, an API for DRM plugins. This would allow websites and apps to add DRM schemes to HTML5 video streams.

Apart from the obvious fact that no DRM has ever worked or provided benefits to the users, there are many problems with the idea, not the least of which being that the proposal isn't for a DRM scheme but for an API for DRM plugins, which means users will then have to install these plugins in their browser if they want to watch encrypted video streams.

Even if you agree with DRM in principle, many critics have pointed out technical flaws in the proposal.

But even as the people involved in shaping web standards are debating the proposal, Google has already built Encrypted Media Extensions into Chrome 25 which will ship with the technology enabled by default.

It doesn't really matter what the experts and the critics argue and no matter what the W3C ultimately decides on the API, the feature is already built into Chrome. Microsoft will build it into Internet Explorer, quite obviously. And, since it's built into WebKit, Safari and Opera will follow.

This means that a non-standard web technology will be ubiquitous in a matter of months on mobile devices and widely supported on the desktop.

Again, this is just an example, HTML5 DRM may turn out to be a great idea. But the simple fact that Google has the power to "will" onto the web any feature or technology should be worrying, because power always corrupts.

This is exactly why people hated IE6 so much and for so long, because it dominated the market, anything Microsoft built into IE was a de facto standard, every bug became a feature. There is a real possibility that the same thing will happen with WebKit.

No monopoly, no matter how well intentioned will ever be only good, copyright being the prime example.

Initially envisioned by a limited, temporary monopoly, granted by the government to spur more people to create culture for the benefit of the public, it has now become a tool for powerful corporations and misguided individuals to protect financial interests, crush competition and innovation, and stifle free speech.

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