Everyone reading this is aware of the English saying “elephant in the room”, right?

Just so we’re on the same page, I’ll quote the wikipedia article on the subject:

The expression “elephant in the room” […] is a metaphorical idiom in English for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable or is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous.

I’m not going to point out the elephant in the room, because in this room there are…

Part 3: Three Vertical Elephants

I’ve used a lot of web browsers during my professional life as a web dev. Netscape 4, MSIE 5, Firefox 1 (without FireBug!), Konqueror 2, Safari 3 on win32 platforms, Opera something. Maxthon. Iceweasel. lynx. w3m.

For the last decade or so, the list of web browsers that I test things with has been reduced to just four: Firefox, Chromium, MSIE (now “Edge”), and Safari.

And now I’m gonna put in a table the entities that develop/control the web browsers, along with what other pieces of the web maps stack they develop/control:

Entity Mozilla Foundation
Alphabet inc.'s Google LLC Apple inc. Microsoft corporation
Web maps platform n/a Google Maps Apple Maps Bing Maps
Azure Maps
Ground-level imagery platform n/a
Apple Look Around Streetside
Web browser Firefox Chrome Safari MSIE/Edge
Operating system n/a Chrome OS
Consumer hardware n/a Pixel
MS Surface

The pattern here should be as obvious as the proverbial elephant in the room. The majority of the web browser market is held by technology megacorporations that hold all the elements of the vertical supply chain for bringing web maps to users.

That’s why I shall refer to Google, Apple and Microsoft collectively as the Three Vertical Elephants, or 3VE for short.

A <mapml> proposal has a huge, obvious opportunity to tie the maps and the browsers of the 3VE together. And I think this is a bad thing for the health of the WWW as a whole.

I see two major dangers here.

One is too-tight integration. I’ve seen this in the past in the form of the antitrust stuff when MS was bundling MSIE by default back in WinXP times; Apple’s way of forcing Safari’s webkit engine to be the only one available in iOS; and the “Sorry, Google Meet doesn’t work with your web browser” message that I’ve suffered this year just because I use a LTS version of Firefox.

The second danger I see is the risk of an Embrace-Extend-Extinguish scenario. Any of the 3VE would be capable of offering tighter integration (renamed to “better user experience” by the PR folks) in the form of a feature that only works (or works better/smoother) with some other part of their stack. Think personal assistant (Siri/Cortana/etc) integration, PIM, vehicle hailing.

I think that the power the 3VE hold is dangerous, specially in times where Mozilla has had to cut staff down by 250 people. 3VE could invest resources in extending the standard, while smaller browsers would struggle to implement anything, rely on polyfills, and in my head it’d be the same oligopoly-driven javascript chaos all over again.

Don’t misunderstand me: I think that tighter integration between user bases and maps and browsers is not wrong. It is, however, economically beneficial to 3VE… which (oversimplifying and extrapolating) means it’s economically detrimental to every other player.

Some of you out there might argue on the contrary (please do! structure your thougths! write stuff!). I suspect there’s gonna be the “trickle down” argument about the tech being available everywhere else and therefore beneficial, and I shall reply about how that argument ignores how 3VE have an incentive to benefit themselves more than the rest of the world, and that if we assume that the economic resource in dispute is zero-sum, the result is actually detrimental. Or the “3VE know what’s better for the user” argument, which shall be replied with “but they know what’s better for themselves, and their incentive is to benefit themselves, not the users”.

So, you see, this is not about technology, this is about politics. I just expect representatives of 3VE to push towards tighter integration, FLOSS nerds (like me!) to be against, and people unaware of the intersectionality of the problem to be lured by the non-political arguments of each side.

Discussion of proposed standards might be purely technical, but the outcomes have deep, long-term economical and political repercusions. Dear reader: this might be, just might be, a good time to take a stance on what repercussions you want there to be.

Next up is Part 4: Thumbs-up for document accesibility