The importance of View Source

Camino View Source

There’s been a long history of innovation on the web founded in open access to the underlying source code that first websites, then later interactive web applications, were built on. The facility of having ready access to the inner workings of any web page has been tantamount to continued inspiration, imitation, and most importantly, the ongoing education of subsequent generations of designer-developer hybrids.

On my panel today on The Hybrid Designer, I took a moment to call out my concerns that the shininess of Rich Internet Application (RIA) frameworks like and (the framework formerly known as WPF/E) is blocking out critical consideration to the gravity and potential consequences of moving to these platforms. As Marc Orchant put it:

One of the most interesting discussions in the session was precipitated when Messina voiced his concerns that “containers” for web functionality like Adobe Apollo and Microsoft Silver[light] would make it harder to create dynamic applications that leverage these data streams as they will, he predicted, created new “walled gardens” by obscuring what is currently a pretty open playing field of ideas and techniques. [Jeremy] Keith added the observation that by hiding the source for the hybrid applications created using these tool, up and coming designers would lose a valuable learning resource that runs counter to the spirit of a read/write web built using open, standardized tools. Needless to say, the room was pretty sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by the panel.

In particular, I was suggesting that these frameworks effectively remove the View Source command — an utter reversal in the trend towards openness in web technologies leading to, in my view, new silos within a more closed web.

Ryan Stewart, who sadly I didn’t get a chance to catch up with afterwards, took me to task for my oversimplification:

Today at the Web 2.0 Expo, I sat in on a panel with Richard MacManus, Kelly Goto, Chris Messina and . They talked about the “hybrid designer” and touched on some points about the web and the richness that has really created the “hybrid” notion. In one bit, Chris said he was lamenting the fact that a lot of RIA technologies are taking away the “view source” and he got applause from the crowd.

I think this is the perfect example of how misunderstood the RIA world is. Chris used the example of Apollo and Silverlight as two technologies that are killing view source. Apollo is meant for desktop applications. We don’t have “view source” on the desktop, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t. Apollo uses Flex and Ajax to create the desktop applications, and BOTH of those allow for view source. It’s true that Flex developers can turn off that feature, but really how is that any different than obfuscating your JavaScript in an Ajax application? When people want to share, the RIA tools out there have mechanisms in place to let them do that. Can you ask for more than that?

I was also surprised to hear Chris complain about Silverlight in that group. Of all the technologies, I think Silverlight actually has the best “view source” support. It uses JavaScript as the programming language behind the hood, and the XAML is just text based, so you can view source just like any other web page and see both the XAML and JavaScript libraries. That’s pretty open I think.

I’ll plead ignorance here (especially in terms of Silverlight), but I refuse to back off from my point about the importance of View Source (a point that I don’t think Ryan disagrees with in principle).

Whether you can get at the “goods” in Silverlight or Apollo apps is only part of the problem. I’ve examined the contents of four or five Apollo apps and each one had any number of impenetrable .swf binaries that I couldn’t do anything with, and even with the complete source code of TwitterCamp, a rather simple Apollo app, it wasn’t obvious how a design-leaning hybrid designer like myself would actually modify the app without buying into expensive Adobe tools like ($699) or ($499). And that in sence, is no different than removing the View Source command altogether.

…and even when I finally did figure out that I could right click and choose View Source while running TwitterCamp, I received this error message and no source code:


Now, Ryan also claims that We don’t have “view source” on the desktop, and I would argue that 1) it depends on your platform and 2) I’m not fundamentally prevented from tinkering with my desktop apps. And this is key.

Let’s drill down for a moment.

On the Mac, every application has the equivalent of a View Source command: simply right click and choose “Show Package Contents”. Since every Mac application is essentially a special kind of folder, you can actually browse the contents and resources of an application — and, in certain cases, make changes. Now, this isn’t as good as getting to the raw source, since there are still unusable binaries in those directories, but you can at least get to the nib files and make changes to the look and feel of an application without necessarily touching code or having the full source.

And so just like on the web, especially with free and open source tools like Firebug and Greasemonkey, with a little bit of knowledge or persistence, you can modify, tweak or wholly customize your experience without getting permission from the application creator all by way of “viewing the source”. More importantly, you can learn from, adapt and merge prior art — source code that you’ve found elsewhere — and that, in turn, can be improved upon and release, furthering a virtuous cycle of innovation and education.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that Ryan has corrected me, especially about Silverlight, which indeed is put together with a lot of plain-text technologies. However, I still can’t help but be skeptical when there seems to be so much in it for Adobe and Microsoft to build out their own islands of the web where people buy only their tools and live in prefab Second Life worlds of quasi-standards that have been embraced and extended. It feels like déjà vu all over again; like we’ve been here before and though I’d thought that we’d internalized the reasons for not returning to those dark ages, the shininess of the new impairs our ability to remember the not-so-distant past… While Ryan may be technically correct about the availability of the source, if that top-level menu item vanishes from the first-gen of RIAs, I remain increasingly concerned that the net result will constitute the emergence of an increasingly closed and siloed web.

I do hope that Ryan’s optimism, coupled with activism from other open source and open web advocates, will work with great speed and efficacy to counter my fears and keep that which is now the most open and vital aspect of the web the way it is now and the way it was meant to be.