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Apple Seeking Ownership of World Wide Web via HTML5 Patent Claims?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 7/27/2011

Recent patents filed by Apple are for technologies that have already been designated as open source and included in the HTML5 specification. Far from being an oversight, it appears that Apple is attempting to force the W3C to pay for the technologies or even usurp control of the standard.

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    In a perfect world, everyone would share everything. I could borrow your car, you could fly to Hawaii in my airplane and we wouldn’t have to worry about problems when things go wrong, because everything would be free.

    Sadly we don’t live in a perfect world, but at least there are people making an effort to keep things free to use and easy to share, such as the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Their job is to oversee the development of the HTML standard in order to manage the development of the Web as a continually useful and versatile medium.

    So you can imagine their consternation when it transpired that Apple was holding on to a couple of patents that have been specifically adopted into the HTML5 standard. After waging a (rather dull) war with Adobe over the implications of proprietary multimedia software such as Flash, Apple is now holding firm on technology used in HTML5, an iteration which dispels with the need for Flash content in web pages.

    What are they playing at, exactly?

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    HTML5 – What It All Means

    Since the 1990s, the W3C has been shaping the World Wide Web through the implantation of standards in the HTML language. They decide to add or remove tags and CSS commands from version to version as well as define conventions for how pages should be written. There is also the task of correctly implementing other languages such as JavaScript and structuring the Document Object Model.

    Basically, the W3C are in charge of creating the technical specs for Web pages and browsers, and the developers or Web browsers largely stick to the rules that are laid out by them.

    HTML5 is a departure from the previous releases (notably HTML4 and XHTML) in that it offers a better level of support for multimedia. This was something highlighted by Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs in 2010 when, as part of his public letter/attack on Adobe titled “Thoughts on Flash", he determined that with HTML5’s development, Adobe Flash would no longer be required for watching video, playing games or listening to music.

    This isn’t 100% accurate as there could easily be issues with a particular browser, and anyway, HTML5 and Flash aren’t like-for-like swaps.

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    Apple vs. Adobe

    The friction between Apple and Adobe seems to be a key element of this whole subject of Apple, HTML5 and open source vs proprietary software situation. It was in the “Thoughts on Flash" letter (published as a blog post) that Steve Jobs declared Adobe Flash a “closed" source, proprietary system that was unsuitable for iPhones. Adobe’s contention was that the opposite was true, but Jobs’ argument that although 75% of video on the web was available in Flash it was also available H.264 format was seen as the key argument in a powerful letter (although one which since has been somewhat diluted by the subsequent success of Adobe Flash on mobile devices, namely Android).

    Steve Jobs giving one of his familiar speeches However, this open letter also included the following:

    "Apple even creates open standards for the web. For example, Apple began with a small open source project and created WebKit, a complete open-source HTML5 rendering engine that is the heart of the Safari web browser used in all our products. WebKit has been widely adopted… By making its WebKit technology open, Apple has set the standard for mobile web browsers."

    It was really cool of Jobs to make the (self-congratulatory) point about Apple’s WebKit project and the big part it plays in HTML5.

    This makes the whole situation concerning two patent filings by Apple for technologies that are required by the W3C for HTML5 all the more concerning.

    After all, HTML5 is supposed to be open source, and by claiming these patents Apple is preventing the W3C from using these particular technologies.

    Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Kyro

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    Apple’s Love of Owning Open Source Software

    The thing is, this isn’t the first time that Steve Jobs has played around with open source technology and claimed it as his own.

    Steve Jobs and Apple have quite a history of adopting formats and specifications and using them in such a way that they become strongly associated with the fruity electronics giant. Take for instance MP3, the popular audio format whose very mention sparks images of iPods, iTunes and Apple. This is more of a de facto association based on the way in which Apple ploughed the fledgling digital music industry in the early 2000s, but it is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

    The roots of OS X, Apple’s current desktop operating system, lead all the way back to the 1980s and Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple. He founded a company called NeXT, where development into object-oriented programming was carried out and new computers and a new operating system were released. It was here that the WebObjects server framework was first developed (something that was very expensive to license, hence its initial failure), and where the first steps were put in place to build the operating system that would become Mac OS X (NeXTSTEP), using the BSD version of Unix, an open source operating system.

    By the mid-1990s, Apple was in financial trouble and decided to purchase NeXT as part of the return to the company of Steve Jobs. Work immediately began on Mac OS X, an operating system that would be Unix-certified thanks to its BSD roots.

    Without the open source BSD, Mac OS X would not be possible!

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    Does Apple Want to Own the Web?

    Honest answer? Of course they do.

    The problem is achieving this, but as most of the technology is already open source and charging for web browsers is counter-productive, introducing an iron grip on a vital patent is the best way to ensure that Apple is able to license the technology to the developers of web browsers, be they Microsoft, Opera, Mozilla or Google.

    Of course ultimately this tactic could backfire. As we’ve seen throughout the history of computing, tenacity and imagination can get around licensing through reverse engineering. If Apple’s grip on HTML5 is seen to be too strong then the W3C could take the path of finding another way to achieve the same outcome that doesn’t infringe on Apple’s patents.

    Ultimately, however, the whole situation stinks of Apple trying to leverage the situation in their favor as a way of promoting their own technologies as the only way to enjoy the web to its full potential.

    It is truly shocking behavior, and for the sake of the survival of the W3C, HTML5 and the very nature of open source, these patents should not be approved.

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    References

    Jobs, Steve. "Thoughts on Flash", http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/

    Clarke, Gavin. "W3C moves to snuff Apple web patents", http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/13/w3c_targets_apple_patent/

    FreeBSD Forum, http://forums.freebsd.org/showthread.php?t=3790