Year zero

was an uprising in extremis (in contrast to The Glorious Revolution). We all know about the storming of the Bastille but the revolutionaries didn’t stop at regime change. They also introduced . While I personally might find to be a splendid idea, it was doomed to failure. It required the existing system to change too much too quickly.

I was reminded of this over the past week as I watched a fever of clock-smashing fervour sweep the world of web standards.

It all began with Håkon’s open letter to the Web community wherein he justifies Opera’s antitrust complaint with the EU. This justification revolves around conflating Internet Explorer’s market dominance with its relative lack of standards support. But for the purposes of an antitrust complaint, these aspects are entirely unrelated. If Microsoft is abusing its market dominance to push its own web browser, that’s one issue. If that web browser happens to be sorely lacking in standards support, that’s a separate issue. Eric has already called them on this—if the issue were really one of standards-compliance, the time for action was when IE6 was languishing in the doldrums, not after the release of IE7 which shows Microsoft is at least back on track:

What I’m advocating is that rather than attacking the laggard right when he’s showing promise of catching up and being part of the team again, it might be better to help him along, maybe even say a few words of encouragement. Unless, that is, this attack springs out of some sort of perceived threat—in which case, just say so, and don’t use web standards as a fig leaf.

If I were cynical, I might suggest that Opera’s mashup of issues is a ploy to manipulate the emotions of web developers who care about standards. But I don’t think that’s the case. Håkon is passionate about web standards—one of the most passionate advocates I’ve met—and I believe that his intentions are honourable. I think he honestly believes that Opera’s actions are in the best interests of the Web. It’s just a shame that, in making his case, he has muddied two separate but important issues.

Spurred on by Håkon’s call to arms, Malarkey predicts a riot and proceeds to lob a brick through the window of the W3C. He outlines his plan for the CSS Working Group equivalent of a decimal clock as one in which browser manufacturers—the people who actually implement the specs—aren’t invited. He cites the situation between Opera and Microsoft:

What I am concerned about is how Opera’s action will further destabilize the W3C’s CSS Working Group of which both Opera and Microsoft post representatives. I am concerned that this action will irrevocably damage the promise and progress of CSS3.

But, as Zeldman points out, this connection is tenuous at best:

Apple and Microsoft and Netscape and Sun and Opera have been suing each other since the W3C started. What lawyers do has never stopped developers from Apple and Microsoft and Netscape and Sun and Opera from working together to craft W3C and ECMA specs.

The next bit of clock-smashing comes from Alex who cries from the barricades that The W3C cannot save us!

Alex solves the kinds of problems that us mere mortals haven’t even recognised as being there. He’s constantly thinking a few years ahead of the rest of us. No surprise then that his frustrations are magnified by his time-travelling perspective. His takeaway soundbite quote is this:

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

He is absolutely right. But here’s the thing… I don’t want the future to change by a large amount. The present isn’t that bad. HTML is good enough. CSS is not bad. JavaScript is okay. Yes, I’d like to see improvements. Yes, I’d like to see innovation. But not at the expense of interoperability. I’m certainly not in a hurry to return to the bad old days of the browser wars, which is the very thing that Alex thinks is required to drive innovation.

I suspect that the frustrations felt by Jeff and others are on a different scale to what Alex is talking about. We don’t want the decimal clock of some brave new browser war; we’re just looking for the of CSS3 with its multiple background images, embeddable fonts and other shiny goodness.

Alex sets up a false dichotomy by suggesting that change must either come from a standards body (something he believes is impossible) or it must come from browser vendors. The truth is that both are possible, as evinced by namespaced CSS rules or, on a more extreme scale, the success of the proprietary XMLHttpRequest object.

While acknowledging the truth in Alex’s frustrations, Stuart sums up the problem with his proposed solution:

Let us not forget that the problem with the browser wars wasn’t that it fragmented the world in lots of different directions. The problem with the browser wars was that it fragmented the world in lots of different directions that weren’t possible to eventually implement everywhere.

I fear that a new wave of browser wars would lead to an ascendancy of and, inevetiably, .

Lest you think I’m being a W3C apologist here, let me make it clear that I am as frustrated as any other web developer at the glacial pace of the CSS Working Group and the lack of progress with CSS3. I just don’t think we need to dump the baby out with the bathwater. I think we can avoid any water disposal related infanticide by just changing what needs to be changed.

I think we can all agree that we’d like to see more transparency and movement from the Working Group. I don’t think we can avoid the process being a “battlefield”, an idea that many find distasteful but which is inherint to any heterogeneous body. It would be a wonderful world indeed in which Parliament, Congress and the United Nations never had to deal with heated disagreement. Disagreement isn’t a reason for abolishing these bodies; it’s the reason they exist in the first place.

It looks like all the recent sound and fury is starting to have an effect. David Baron is taking a stand from within:

I’ve informed the CSS working group that I am no longer participating in member-only mailing lists or meetings. I believe the member-confidential nature of the group hurts the future development of CSS.

Change is needed. It looks like change is coming. It may even be a regime change. But let’s not start drawing up new calendar systems just yet. The clock of CSS is running slow. We need to wind it up. That doesn’t mean we need to smash it.

Have you published a response to this? :

Comments

Nice post, Jeremy. I don’t know that Alex really set up a false dichotomy. I certainly didn’t read it that way. To me, the take away point from Alex’s article is that we need to encourage, applaud, and make use of the browser-companies innovations, when they provide them.

I totally agree with you that innovation can come from both standards bodies and browser manufacturers — and I think Alex does, too. I think we just don’t have much faith the standards bodies will actually act on that ability, so we’d like to see the browser makers step it up a bit (as it standards, WebKit is the only one really doing much in this realm).

# Posted by Jeff Croft on Tuesday, December 18th, 2007 at 4:56pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Jeremy.

# Posted by Stephanie on Tuesday, December 18th, 2007 at 5:12pm

Hey Jeremy:

What I penned may sound completely loony to the standards advocacy crowd, but I think that’s in part due to the difference in perspective. Sandards advocacy (directed at browser vendors) is essential to the future, and hopefully I clearly acknowledged as much in my post. It’s worth noting that I’m also not saying that the W3C is useless nor am I saying that we shouldn’t look to them for guidance on standards. Instead, I’m simply suggesting that by stoning "proprietary features" reflexively at the alter of standardization, the community is working against any hope of a future which is different by any measurable degree.

We strongly disagree about how hard HTML, CSS, and JS+DOM are, but I think this is also down to a difference in perspective. The JS library folks work at the edges of what those specs can do right now, and out here, there’s not much air left. We’re nearly out of room to grow in these clothes, and the problem is not that they don’t fit now, it’s that all the shops have stopped selling anything bigger.

Teaching new people to learn to use this platform is much harder than I think many of us are willing to internalize. HTML just isn’t good enough. Doing sophisticated things with it requires far too many nodes and overall brain bending. CSS has little of the expressive capacity and none of the composability that it should. Holes in the implementations make the middle-of-the-road, the stuff that you can count on, even smaller. New features and real competition help us widen that middle of the road, and that’s where the real power is.

I suppose we’ll continue to disagree about the issues w/ HTML, CSS, and JS+DOM, but at least we can do so honestly. It seems that one can now dissent from the standards advocacy line and not get flamed for it, which is refreshing.

Regards

Well said, sir.

To my knowledge, the W3C has been working on its transparency problems for at least two years and making real change — just very slowly and incrementally and hence not at all obviously.

The decision makers within the W3C intend to do much more, but they need to get their colleagues on board, and consensus-building is a bitch.

If designers and developers are more aware of the problems than of the fact that the W3C is working to solve them, it’s because the W3C is not great at outreach. If they were great at outreach, we wouldn’t have needed a Web Standards Project to persuade browser makers to implement the specs and designers and developers to use them.

Participation and patience are needed. Your post beautifully explains why the W3C needs our backs, not our bullets.

# Posted by zeldman on Wednesday, December 19th, 2007 at 2:18pm

Thanks Jeremy. A great article.

I’ve fallen a bit behind on this discussion and this overview gives me a chance to catch up a bit and read a few different views.

I chatted to a few people about the problem during @media Ajax, and we all agreed that the opacity of the W3C is the main problem.

Moving away from closed mailing lists to something more accessible (in the "friendly" sense) would help immensely. RSS feeds containing meeting minutes, and published roadmaps might be a good start. If necessary these could still provide a degree of confidentiality to browser vendors.

A better understanding of the complexities of building a browser could also help people to sympathise with those trying to agree on a standard. Three times this week I have seen different browser behaviours where I haven’t been able to decide which one was "correct". For me at least, this has opened my eyes a little to the complexities involved.

The emergence of AIR and Silverlight has made me realise that I rather like having one set of standards to work from, and for the time being at least I am keen to see the W3C process work.

Great post Keith. The application of "Year Zero" philosophy to anything is terribly frightening to me (especially being from the US…) I’m a little disheartened to see such brilliant people taking extreme stances.

# Posted by Chris on Wednesday, December 19th, 2007 at 3:49pm

"If that web browser happens to be sorely lacking in standards support, that’s a separate issue. Eric has already called them on this—if the issue were really one of standards-compliance, the time for action was when IE6 was languishing in the doldrums, not after the release of IE7 which shows Microsoft is at least back on track"

I disagree.

Opera Software is a European company, and it is right now that the EU is investigating MS for anti-competitive practices. It did not do that back when IE6 was the latest version. So it’s basically now or never.

And remember, Microsoft promised the world for IE7. And Opera (and everyone else) did exactly what you want them to do now: They gave them a chance.

Microsoft failed to deliver.

And now we are going to put our faith in the very same company again? The company that continues to stall the standards process so that its own solutions (Silverlight, anyone?) can gain traction instead? IE8 is suddenly going to fix everything, just like IE7 was too at some point?

That IE is sorely lacking in standards support is not a separate issue. It is THE issue. It is IE’s poor standards compliance which has led to a web where

"I fear that a new wave of browser wars would lead to an ascendancy of Robespierres and, inevetiably, Napoleons."

There will be no war. Microsoft has no weapon to fire back with if they are forced to unbundle IE.

# Posted by ribbit on Wednesday, December 19th, 2007 at 5:52pm

Dead on, Jeremy. I think people need to understand that web standards (and in places poor implementations) isn’t just something holding the best of the best back sometimes, but it also has been a fantastic uniting factor for web developers within all skill levels. Why wouldn’t we want to build on somthing that, albeit slow, is getting better and better?

I think many people are misinterpreting Alex’s post. His point isn’t that we should throw out standards; his point is that the better things that came out of the browser wars only did so—and were somewhat standardized—because a browser manufacturer was willing to try it. Let’s face it: without NN4’s layers concept, we probably wouldn’t have a lot of the kinds of animations we have today with Ajax.

Yes, that concept died (and good riddance)—but it spurred a lot of counter-development, thought, and eventually part of a standard.

I could point at a number of other things, and point at some examples today where there is at least some innovation going on (canvas tag, anyone?).

I believe what Alex was trying to say is that while standards aren’t a bad thing, they always follow the kinds of experimentation that was present in the browser wars, and not the other way around; therefore, in conjunction with good practice (not necessarily the same thing as "adherence to the standards", though that should figure in very heavy with good practice) we should be encouraging browser manufacturers to experiment a bit more. As part of this call to arms, Alex is decrying not the standards themselves (ok, a bit)—he is decrying the kind of "standardista" automatons, the people who love to visit lots of blogs and immediately point out how something "doesn’t follow this standard", or the kind of people who will email a website admin with a message to the effect of "your website doesn’t validate, therefore you suck".

In other words, he is advocating practicality over theory, and reminding us all that without experimentation, you will get a specification without any kind of practical background—which more often than not ends up being unusable (I’m thinking DOM3 Load/Save here, though I’m sure others would disagree). His bottom line: don’t be afraid to try something new, and for those who feel that it is a sin to do so—let people try before passing judgement.

We’ve gone from the fragmentation of the late 90’s to the stagnation of the 00’s. We need to swing back to the middle a bit.