Tim Berners-Lee spoke at a Linux conference today about mobile platforms and native apps vs. HTML:

“The right to have root on your machine,” that is, full administrator access to your computing devices including smartphones, is a “key issue,” Sir Tim Berners-Lee told a geek-heavy audience at the 2013 conference in Canberra this morning.

“The right to have root on your machine is the right to store things which operate on your behalf,” he said.

There’s two separate issues here, the right to have root (or administrative) access to your device, and the right to have control over your data.

I’m very fussy about keeping control over my data. I write mostly in Markdown, an open data format that is stored in text files. It’s unlikely that I won’t be able to read or edit what I’ve written in 50 years time because no one supports that file format anymore. To me, my data is timeless.

However the device and software I use is only temporal. It’s likely in 10 years time we’ll be using a different operating system. Whether that software is open or locked down, it doesn’t matter as long as my data is ‘free’.

The advantages of using a walled-garden approach like Apple outweigh the freedom offered by root access. At least for now.

Berners-Lee also spoke out against the trend of writing a native application for every platform — that is, an iPhone and iPad app for Apple’s iOS devices, another for Android, and so on. It’s a duplication of effort, and it’s “boring for developers” to write and test similar code for each device, he said.

I would argue that it’s much more ‘boring’ testing designs for web browsers, as it involves testing on several different browsers and maybe even different version of each browser.

Writing a native app is currently a necessity if you want to create something that’s best of breed. None of the HTML5 frameworks or even proprietary cross-platform frameworks even come close to writing a native app.

Berners-Lee pointed to the Financial Times’ award-winning mobile site at as an example of what can be achieved. “Once you load the page, it pulls in all the pages of today’s paper and sticks them on your device…just as though you’re running an app,” he said.

“Use the fact that, more and more, you can do [in HTML5] the things that a native app can do.”

While I applaud the Financial Times’ mobile site, it still doesn’t compare well to a good native app. There are issues with the layout, performance, and responsiveness. It is clearly not a native app and rather a HTML web app, so saying it can do everything a native app can do is rather disingenuous.

Utopian future

Berners-Lee promotes his own creations, and he’s well within his rights to. In the long term the web should be protected, but I don’t think it’s as ‘open’ as he claims it to be, most websites we visit are closed source and controlled by corporations.

Native apps are just another way to write high performance web apps that run on mobile devices, it solves a problem we have now until we have the capability to solve it in a more cross-platform way in the future.

Weiran Zhang

Hi, I'm Weiran Zhang. I work as a Software Enginnering Manager at Capital One. I have a passion for iOS and building thriving software teams. This blog is a place for me to document things I've learned and things I find interesting. You should follow me on Twitter.