Web of Small Pieces Loosely Joined:

Position Paper for IAB ESCAPE Workshop

Wendy Seltzer and Ralph Swick, W3C 7 June, 2019

The Web has been a triumph of what David Weinberger calls “small pieces loosely joined.”[1] Economists and computer scientists refer to modularity: the composition of independent components via well-defined interfaces and abstraction layers. In a modular system, one component can be swapped out without breaking the overall stack. Standards help to make the inter-component interfaces reliable and suitable to the needs of a variety of participants, whether they refer to standardized commodities in a supply chain, or APIs met by a variety of programs and libraries.

As both economists and computer scientists recognize, modularity can bring costs as well as benefits. Picking the right place to standardize an interface, the right shape for its design, and the right time to split or combine layers are all choices with both technical and financial impact. Interfaces add flexibility, encode particular design choices, and may also add overhead.

Web Packaging is one such potential reconfiguration. It detaches some dependencies and introduces others, and it’s too early yet to say “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”[2] But it’s not too early to try to envision the consequences. Does removing some requirements tighten the hold on remaining chokepoints? The signed HTTP exchanges proposal erases an inalienability, the hold of the origin over its contents. Does de-coupling provide new freedom to select among service providers, or new coercion toward consolidated solutions? Better options for different models of connectedness or more friction for decentralization?

Assessing the optimal architecture for a participatory Web and Internet thus requires input from many disciplines, including technical, economic, legal, and sociological. W3C’s specific proposed input is in the technical realm and as a convener of participants around the technical components to their use cases and requirements.

Web Standards and W3C

Packaging intersects with multiple areas of interest represented in W3C: “web applications”, publishing, media and entertainment, immersive web, games, and archives all have use cases for bundling, distributing, and delivering content of different types and potential origins. Advertising and payments are interested in attribution. Performance, application security, privacy, and accessibility, meanwhile, have opinions -- which may diverge -- on impacts to the platform and its users.

Though W3C is primarily a technical standards organization, its participants come from all segments of the community; technology producers, content producers, and consumers of both as well as aggregators and others with business models that closely tie to the delivery mechanisms. We aim to understand the impact of proposed approaches on all these use cases and help the web toward the best-informed design choices.

Related W3C Groups:

  • Publishing Working Group and Business Group
  • Media Working Group and Media and Entertainment Interest Group
  • Immersive Web Working Group
  • Improving Web Advertising Business Group
  • Web Applications Working Group
  • Web Performance Working Group
  • Web Application Security Working Group
  • Privacy Interest Group
  • Accessible Platform Architectures Working Group

    [1] Weinberger, David, Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002)

    [2] Miranda, Lin-Manuel, Hamilton (2015)