Wither web standards? And a call for new browser wars

There’s been a flurry of activity in web standards land lately, with Opera taking on Microsoft in Europe over their failure to conform to web standards, while Andy “Malarkey” Clarke calls BS on the whole CSS Working Group thing, pointing to the complicity and corruption that comes with entrenched vendors having little to no incentive to innovate at the speed of the web and Mozilla’s Dave Baron getting fed up with backdoor dealings. In support of his case, Alex “Dojo Toolkit” Russell suggests that we abandon the W3C altogether (and Zeldman-kind too) and start burning [our] standards advocacy literature and start telling [our] browser vendors to give [us] the new shiny. Jeff Croft jumps in as well, asking whether we should return to the browser wars of yore.

I attempted to leave a comment on Jeff’s blog, but since I was over his 3000 character limit, I’m blogging it here, without the normal care that I usually take with posts here. Take it as you will:

As much as I appreciate your perspective and agree with the goals that you, Andy M and Alex share, I am at the same time dismayed that it means we’re going to end up essentially with “privileged web experiences” and “unprivileged web experiences” if you take this path.

It also means that the fight against Silverlight and Flash essentially comes to a draw and developers have to pick sides (if they haven’t already) and “standardize” their own work to one of four choices: either two of the above or, confusingly, HTML-compliant and HTML-incompatible. So while you might be able to do some shiny things into the forceable future, it does seem to me that you’re going to wind up creating more work for developers to have to test against and support both HTML variants (not to mention the long history of browser incompatibilities), in which case they might as well just jump the open web standards ship altogether and get in bed with Microsoft or Adobe, given their ability to crank out tools AND formats that rival most of their open alternatives.

It seems to me that rather than necessarily abandoning web standards or, as Alex said, “start burning their standards advocacy literature”, I suppose I’d like to see how we can begin to commoditize the more attractive aspects of Silverlight and AIR/Flash with open formats and standards. Unfortunately we are up against massive marketing dollars and entrenched positions, but in the end, open always wins.

If you’re really serious about this, and I think Alex, with his relationship to the Dojo project is in the perfect position to do so, I think the job of folks who have grown disillusioned with the web standards path should begin to develop “community conventions” that can be implemented today, using what leading browsers support (Opera, Firefox and WebKit/Safari) (see microformats, leading this approach, as well as OAuth). I think rewarding those browser makers by exploiting the features that they ARE implementing is a good way to go, and I also think that developing rich interface libraries in CSS and Javascript will continue to be important to advancing the state of the “unprivileged web”. We’ve made a great deal of progress in a relatively short amount of time with jQuery and similar libraries that deliver effects previously unthought of in regular web pages… it’s just a matter of time before we approach this as a more concerted effort to make web applications compete with their proprietary brethren.

With site-specific browser generators like Todd Ditchendorf’s Fluid and coming out, I think we’re also moving much more quickly towards local desktop integration than you’ll be able to get out of full-fledged generic browsers. In fact, I’m most hopeful about those kinds of application for the kind of innovation you’re talking about.

I think I’m just about as fed up as you with the centralized, top-down web standards process. But then again, I never believed in it from the beginning. Your frustrations to me only indicate that the way of old skool, top down bureaucracies have had their day; the way forward is the way of open source and open communities that produce results. And given that we do already have a body of standards that we can build on top of, I do worry that a lot of effort will be wasted paving a new path towards an uncertain future, when there is still so much potential and opportunity to be had with the technologies that are available today but are simply underutilized and have yet to be exploited.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

7 thoughts on “Wither web standards? And a call for new browser wars”

  1. Hey Chris — thanks for the response (and sorry about that 3000 character limit. I know it’s annoying; I run into it myself sometimes!).

    I generally agree with most of what you have to say. Just to clarify one thing: I am in no way suggesting we abandon the existing standards. Rather, I’m suggesting that browser makers should be encouraged to innovate, using the unobtrusive -renderingengine syntax, alongside the existing standards.

  2. Chris .. the issue you take on here is an enormous challenge.

    I have been involved in a startup over the last year, and we build for Firefox, then tweak to work in IE. This is not just ironic, its backwards, when we consider that IE is 80% of the browserspace. Yet I would have it no other way. Building the right way is always the right thing, and right in this case, is properly coded following appropriate principles.

    The battle will not be won in the debate around standards. People using browsers have no idea about standards. They only know what works and what doesn’t.

    I personally like the direction of OpenID, Oauth, Microformats etc. If the power of those platforms/ capabilities are sufficiently valid people will demand their browser de jour accept those capabilities. So yes, I agree this is not a browser war matter. Its actually a ‘people relevance’ matter.

    The debate needs to centre on making OpenID, Oauth, Microformats etc, relevant to average people. This has yet to happen.

  3. Hey Chris:

    I want to be pretty clear about something: I’m not suggesting that the W3C is useless or that we don’t need it. What I’m saying as clearly as I can is that it is simply not the place to go for new features. Instead, it’s the place to get existing features which are deployed ironed out and as compatible as possible. Only when technology is deployed and succeeds or fails can we really judge whether or not it’s going to work well (and therefore should be standardized). That’s all I’m suggesting.

    As for the privileged vs. unprivileged web experience, bring it on. Using the market to prove that something is better is how it should work. Regardless, we already have the unprivileged web experience and we even give it a positive term: graceful degradation. It’s how we’ve evolved the browser stack in the past and it can serve us well again as we struggle to figure out the browser of the future. The web is resilient to changes in both content and clients, and we count on that flexibility to give us things like access to web content from mobile devices.

    Building better experiences for better clients is how we will drive adoption. Firefox has proven as much via enhancements to chrome, and the conundrum for non-chrome content is that to get similar advances, we must use things that are pre-standardization. Standards compliance never got anyone’s heart racing, and that’s what’s required to get us where we want to be: users saying “I want that” because it’s better for them.


  4. I find the WC3 recent cave-in on adding Theora as the built in video player for HTML5 troubling too. So if a bunch of private corporations can just bully a supposed neutral governing body into doing what they want, what hope is there for things like Oauth, OpenID and microformats? Wither the Web standards indeed.

    Ref: http://www.thenextlayer.org/node/249

  5. This is all a very difficult subject and a land-mine if you will.

    Developers wouldn’t have to pick sides if only there were more centralized standards. But I highly doubt that will ever happen.

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