In a blog post today, Google is announcing that it’s formally embarking on a project to convince the group in charge of web standards to adopt technology inspired by its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) framework. In theory, it would mean that virtually any webpage could gain the same benefits as AMP: near-instantaneous loading, distribution on multiple platforms, and (critically) more prominent placement on Google properties.
This sounds impenetrably dense and boring, but please don’t click away yet! This is important, a little tricky to understand, and critical to how the web and Google interact in the future. In many ways, Google’s success or failure in this endeavor will play a major role in shaping how the web works on your phone.
If you’re unfamiliar, AMP is Google’s attempt to make webpages as fast and portable as other “instant articles” (like what you might read on Facebook or Apple News). The idea is that when you click a link on those other platforms, you don’t have to wait for the article to load because it’s already preloaded in an app. AMP’s goal is to bring the same performance to the web itself.
“Google walked right into the center of a thicket”
By creating AMP, Google blithely walked right into the center of a thicket comprised of developers concerned about the future of the web. Publishers are worried about ceding too much control of their distribution to gigantic tech companies, and all of the above are worried that Google is not so much a steward of the web but rather its nefarious puppet master.
All that angst has metastasized in the past few months, with a widely circulated open letter to Google asking it to fix AMP, more Medium blog posts than can be read in a week, Twitter screeds, and arguments in the comments of AMP’s own GitHub code repository. And that’s only the stuff coming from web developers. (I keep a folder of bookmarks I call “AMPhole” to try to keep up, and that hole gets deeper nearly every day.)
The whole situation is slightly frustrating to David Besbris, VP of search engineering at Google. Earlier this week, I went to Mountain View to talk with Besbris and Malte Ubl, engineering lead for AMP. “This is honestly a fairly altruistic project from our perspective,” says Besbris.
”It wasn’t like we invented AMP because we wanted to control everything, like people assume,” he says. Instead, he argues, go back and look at how dire the state of the mobile web was a few years ago, before AMP’s inception. It sucked — in fact, Nilay Patel published a story on this very website titled “The mobile web sucks” in 2015. He was right. Apple and Facebook dealt with that problem by creating proprietary formats and then convinced publishers to distribute their news in those formats on their platforms. As Nilay wrote:
Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media.