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Browser-wars 2.0? Conflict breeds innovation

Tuesday, 18 December 2007 standards webdev

Several pronounced webdev figures are stepping forward to say they’re bored of the stale state of standards. We need more fun and faster innovation and the best thing for that is all-out war, no?

This question is hinted at by Jeff Croft in his post Do we need a return to the browser wars? He dwindles around the point that all-out war is the only real way that we’re going to see a significant improvement in the internet. To surmise: the W3C and other standards bodies and working groups are knackering any hope of advancing the net at speed.

Jeff’s post links back to another post by Alex Russell of the Dojo JS framework, entitled The W3C Cannot Save Us and he outs a wonderful truth that, and I quote, “everyone knows but few truly accept”:

In order for the future to be better by a large amount, it must be different by a large amount.

The above graphic is from Cory Ench’s fantastic Ench Gallery.

I’m a complete standards-whore but I can’t help but agree. Change — good or bad — requires (at some point) people to go out there and do something that’s never been done before. We’ve been hacking away at CSS for some time, some of the changes come from standards bodies like the W3C or some unheard-of “working group” but plenty of the web as we know it came from stubborn browser makers going “we can do this internally”, hammering it out and having it brought into a standard from user demand.

This all follows on quite nicely from Opera declaring war on IE trying to get it stripped from Windows inside the EU. Opera cite that Microsoft, because of their market-share dominance, must not be allowed to deviate from standards, but frankly, if MS comes up with something truly ingenious (possible however unbelievable it may be), I’d quite like to play around with it to see if it really warrants being set in stone and implemented elsewhere.

What sorts of features? How about maths in CSS? How’s about some measure of good-looking graphing/charting solution? I’m sure that a standards body could ratify something eventually, but they would need to engage in a trial and error process that takes substantially longer than just hacking something out.

The real fear here is there are many technologies competing to work inside HTML but given the moment’s chance, to take over the space completely and burst out of the browser completely. Flash has AIR. Silverlight has .NET. Both these technologies only have to answer to their users; no standards bodies, no competitors, no European Commission; and as such they can implement a new feature in their clients, push it out as an update and have people using it the very next month.

And there in-lies one of the largest weaknesses of the current HTML model: there are just too damned many renderers to script for! Not only do they all behave differently on standard-validated material, some don’t support the newer standards, some never will, and some never get updated (he says, glaring at the IE5/IE6 users).

Just imagine how much more exciting the internet could be if there was just one engine powering every browser that was constantly kept up to date. Developers could work on really cool stuff, have it ratified by whoever and push it out in an extremely short time. Developing for the web would become fun.

Alas, this will probably never happen — browser vendors are just too confident that their own solution is the best — but there are some things that could happen to make life more fun, while keeping things standard and safe on the web:

  1. Attempt to ditch the obfuscation surrounding standards bodies. Do you know what they do? Do you know how they decide things? Do you know how to suggest something, and even if you did, do you think it’d ever make the slightest bit of difference? I’ve got to say I feel extremely ostracised whenever I visit a working group’s site and try and initiate some sort of dialogue. We’re only the drones that have to use your damned standard, what could we possibly have to offer to the process?!

  2. Perhaps browser vendors could lead the working groups? That does sound like a chance for a good fight but being able to play and test suggestions is ever-so-slightly more involving than watching a single idea taking five years to get from conception to implementation.

  3. Vendors need to experiment. We’ve had -webkit and -moz CSS suffixes in the past where people want to show off certain features (eg: opacity, now standardised, and multiple backgrounds in webkit) but these are pretty few and far between. Everybody knows they’re not for production-use but they do improve the web, once ratified and implemented in other systems.

Bellyaching at all the browsers that don’t meet the current grade, doesn’t make the future any better than the current standard. IE has been a massively popular scapegoat for internet woes, and justly so in most cases, but the browser landscape is a market and adheres to the same rules as business. Educating the non-techies about alternative products and getting them to switch is proving an effective incentive for MS to improve their browser — legislating that browsers can only use standards is going to mean there’s no fun at all.

We by no means need to enter into a full war where people are competing at production level, but healthy competition to improve the web would go a long way, in my eyes.

To close, I’ll try and win you over with the comparison to the PC gaming/enthusiast market. The amount of hardware used for games has (and still is) increasing at a mammoth rate and for most of this time it has been an outright battle to provide the best features and the fastest performance. The hardware drives better quality graphics and the games demand better quality hardware — a tussle that keeps things improving in leaps and bounds. Think of the browsers as the hardware and the web as the games and you’re thinking what I’d like to see. Experimentation. Fun. Improvement.