Future friendly, or Forward to Yesterday?

chinese propagada poster, with 'Happy Productive Web Developers! Stamp out bourgeoise competition! Let us  march  together on the Single Path to a Glorious Yesterday!' added

Last week saw some interesting blogposts that neatly summarise the opposing world views that we’re seeing at the moment regarding the “problem” of the Web.

Alex Russell (of Google Chrome) wrote a considered blog post called Things the W3C Should Stop Doing in which he suggested

the W3C needs to find a ways to re-focus on the needs of the constituencies that give it credibility; namely web developers and browser vendors.

…it should be agreed that the W3C will divest itself of any and all Semantic Web, RDF, XML, Web Services, and Java related activities.

…What would that leave us with? CSS, DOM & JS APIs, HTML, a11y, i18n, and all the other stuff that has legs out on the public web.

…The time has come for the W3C to grab the mantle of the web, shake off its self-doubt, and move to a place where doing good isn’t measured by numbers of specs and activities, but by impact for web developers.

I found myself nodding frequently while reading it. I wrote two years ago about my belief that XML makes no sense on the Web. And there are no shortage of vital specifications to work on – just look at David Storey’s list The Open Web 1 stack: the HTML5 application age (even after removing EcmaScript and WebGL which arent’t W3C).

I fervently hope that the W3C continues to be the place where new Standards get hammered out. I worry that, because it dropped the ball so calamitously with XHTML 2 and left the WHATWG to begin work on HTML5, there is a feeling that other specs should be developed outside the W3C. We see this with Widget specifications, where organisations haven’t liked the W3C work but instead of participating in that group, they’ve developed their own variants in isolation.

Developer Joe Hewitt has nothing but scorn for the W3C or any standards body:

To thrive, HTML and company need what those other platforms have: a single source repository and a good owner to drive it. A standards body is not suited to perform this role. Browser vendors are innovating in some areas, but they are stalled by the standards process.

He similarly scorns diversity of user agents, wishing for a monoculture:

It would help if all the rendering engines but one were to die, but even that would not be enough. Even if WebKit was the only game in town, it would still be crucial for it to have competent, sympathetic, benevolent leaders. The closest thing we have to that today is Chromium…

Obviously, I’m hardly likely to agree with this (I work for Opera, but this post is personal opinion yada yada). I’ve written before about how the IE6 monoculture grew because people believed it was the finest browser (In praise of Internet Explorer 6) and you can read about the cost of a browser monoculture in Korea.

I’m with Uncle Timbo who dreamed of the Web as universal: independent of hardware platform, software platform (operating system), Application Software, Network access, Language and culture or disability. These are features not bugs. This universality is the strength of the Web, not a problem to be solved by a Strong Benevolent Leader and single user agent.

Web veteran John Allsopp writes

The web is a different problem. It makes little if any sense to compare innovation of the web ecosystem with that of iOS, Android or other platforms. The web faces challenges far far greater (and has goals far more important). A platform such as iOS can abandon legacy applications, content and hardware, (along with their users) with little compunction. It can (and does) make developers and content creators wishing to participate jump through any number of hoops. It has a single dictatorial decision maker, beholden to no one, and nothing other than itself. And it generates extraordinary revenues, which can be reinvested into the ongoing development of the platform.

The web is different. It values interoperablity, backwards compatibility. It’s goal is to bring access to the same information to billions across the world, on all manner of devices. Its custodians are, in my opinion, scandalously under-​​resourced, given just how much wealth the web has created for so many, perhaps above all Google and Apple.

Robert Nyman (of Mozilla) agrees:

The web is the true form of democracy: people from any part of the world – with any background, gender, social status or skin color – can take part in and build the future. Some things can take longer to reach consensus about than in a closed company-controlled environment, but I would have open and democratic standards every day over that.

Not all developers agree with Hewitt. This month’s poster child for responsive/ adaptive/ HTML5 design is the redesign of The Boston Globe newspaper. It has rich markup. It looks great across different devices and screensizes. It looks great on devices that can’t deal with much JavaScript such as Opera Mini.

In an interview I did (for .net magazine, unpublished) Scott Jehl (of the Filament Group who worked on Boston Globe) said

I find Opera Mini tends to be pretty easy to support if you build with Progressive Enhancement – it’s a great browser with lots of performance optimizations included, and of course it’s incredibly popular around the world so supporting it is a no-brainer. Our experience [at Filament] leading the jQuery Mobile project led some familiarity to a lot of platforms that aren’t commonly tested, but are quite popular throughout the world.

The baseline browser we were regularly testing was BlackBerry 4.6, which receives a basic, JS-free experience like most other non-media-query-supporting browsers. Somebody sent us a screenshot of the Globe site running on a Newton recently!

It’s not the case that to make sophisticated websites you need to abandon universality, creativity, and progressive enhancement.

Scott is one of those behind a manifesto site called Future Friendly that argues:

We want to make things that are future friendly. By anticipating what’s next, we can react to today’s concerns but also build long-term value for people and businesses…To manage in a world of ever-increasing device complexity, we need to focus on what matters most to our customers and businesses. Not by building lowest common-denominator solutions but by creating meaningful content and services…An ecosystem of devices demands to be interoperable, and robust data exchange is the easiest way to get going.

Once you remove the fluffiness from the manifesto, it boils down to a useful reminder to design with progressive enhancement; to use structured, semantic markup; to test across software and hardware platforms and to understand that things won’t look the same everywhere.

Future friendly or Forward to Yesterday? I know which I choose.

17 Responses to “ Future friendly, or Forward to Yesterday? ”

Comment by Steve Williams

I totally agree, but what to do for projects that don’t have the all encompassing budget of the Globe? Selling universality is easy, but especially right now budgets are often tight.

I’m not suggesting it’s all or nothing, most projects could stand the extra to include media queries for example, but better guidance on what matters most, to whom and therefore where to prioritise funding would be helpful – I don’t think it’s as clear as it might first sound.

http://dev.opera.com/articles/view/the-mobile-web-optimization-guide/ is a great resource btw

Comment by Patrick H. Lauke

Responsiveness and universality – at least at the most basic levels – are akin to accessibility, in my mind. If you start out a project aiming for them, you shouldn’t really incur that much more cost. It’s only the 11th hour “crap, I only tested on my shiny iPhone5, now it’s not working on that Android device” realisation that can be very costly, as it requires retrofitting and kludging things around. IMHO, of course.

And yes, if we followed the “why can’t there be a single rendering engine for the web” idea a few years ago, we’d all be coding to IE6/Trident. Joy. But I guess the difference is the benevolent dictators at the top, eh?

Comment by Shelley

Basically you’re saying: whatever the browser companies like, that’s what the W3C should focus on.

Rather a shallow world view, don’t you think?

Comment by Patrick H. Lauke

Shelley, I understand the frustration of the apparent “the browser manufacturers have everybody in a stranglehold” situation, but realistically, without giving W3C regulatory powers that can force browsers to implement things even if they don’t “like” them (and there’s enough of that happening already, purely through market pressures of one browser inventing something new, developers rushing to use it, and other browsers having to reluctantly start supporting it as well), I really can’t see a way out of that.

Comment by Bruce

Shelley

nope. But that’s probably what Alex is saying.

I agree that concentrating on the real web makes sense, when there is so much work to be done there, and that has the biggest bang for the hard-to-find-these-days buck.

Comment by Shelley

Patrick, it’s already happening, though. We’re seeing this with the split in unity about the fact that Google unilaterally split the Editing API out of the HTML5 spec, and Apple expressed its discomfort.

The W3C is supposed to be a neutral meeting place where the browser companies can meet and share proprietary ideas and concepts. But there is a cost for this facility: the W3C is also supposed to be a place where others outside of the browser companies can come in and give their input and supposedly have their say, too.

Too many in the browser company employees (this page’s host not included) have grown arrogant, and intolerant. Not only do they want to define the web according to what they want, their only interest seems to be creating technologies that they want to use, and a seeming indifference to what others may want.

Maybe we don’t have any power, and the web of the future will be defined by a handful of intolerant men who care little for other opinions. However, I (and others) plan on making them fight for their egocentric web, every step of the way.

Comment by Steve Fenton

This is an incredibly important discussion. We need the web to be open and accessible to all – something I was reminded about when Bruce talked at Tech Days.

It is easy to forget just how universal the web is. It is important for humanity that we respect this and the pains we endure (mostly emotional) to make things work across many browsers is actually worth it.

No dictator, benevolent or otherwise, required.

Comment by John Foliot

Heya Bruce,

Just a quick question: what, exactly, is the “real web”? Are you suggesting that RDFa (for example), which is used by Facebook, and integrated into Drupal, is somehow “unreal”?

I can sort of understand that XML parsing doesn’t belong in browsers, but XML as an exchange format for storing complex data in large databases seems quite reasonable to me. And if we are then going to take that data and render it via the browsers, then it would seem to this punter that having HTML and XML working closely together (so as to remain “friends”) is both reasonable and in the web’s best interest, and having everyone inside the bigger W3C tent is one way of ensuring that we all keep talking together.

I know that fundamentally you are not anti-W3C, but as yer bud, I caution you about tossing around terms like the real web, as what is real for some is not always going to be real for others, and vice-versa. The beauty of the web is that it can be whatever you dream it can be (and that on the internet, no-one knows you are a dog). Chasing away “RDFa and XML” because it doesn’t fit the browser version of the web does us all a dis-service.

Comment by Daniel Walker

I recall when we were at glasshaus, I used to try and sneak screen shots, into the books, of the project website rendering in Konqueror, or Opera for OS X, or whatever. The message I still believe in, is that if you cannot picture what it is going to look like before you test it in “browser x on platform y”, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Expect to be unsurprised, and treat being surprised as a learning exercise – since you’ve probably just done something wrong.

The real irony, here, is, of course Konqueror -> Safari -> KHTML -> WebKit -> “Why doesn’t everyone just use webkit?”

Any monoculture is just industrialised inbreeding… and I don’t see anyone espousing the virtues of inbreeding.

Comment by Tom Morris

I don’t like the suggestion that the only way to have competent management of HTML and CSS is to throw the RDF people under the bus. Do people really believe that the only thing keeping the Web back as a platform is that the W3C also has working groups for Semantic Web technologies? That’s delusional.

The browser manufacturers still can’t agree on Ogg Vorbis vs. WebM vs. H.264. Let’s blame that on the Semantic Web community too.