South by CSS

South by Southwest has become a vast, sprawling festival with a preponderance of panels pitched at marketers, start-ups and people that use the words “social media” in their job title without irony. But there were also some great design and development talks if you looked for them.

Samantha gave a presentation on style tiles, which I unfortunately missed but I’ll be eagerly awaiting the release of the audio. I also missed some good meaty JavaScript talks but I did manage to make it along to Jen’s excellent introduction to HTML5 APIs.

Andy’s talk on CSS best practices was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. He did a fantastic job of tackling some really important topics. It’s a presentation (and a presenter) that deserves a wider audience, so if you’re involved in putting together the line-up for any front-end conferences, I highly recommend that you nab him.

Divya put together an absolutely killer panel called CSS.next, all about how CSS gets specced and shipped, and what’s coming down the line. All of the panelists were smart, articulate, and well-informed. The panel was very enlightening, as well as being thoroughly enjoyable.

And then there was the Browser Wars panel.

This is something of a SXSW tradition. Arun assembles a line-up of representatives from browser makers—Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, and Opera—and then peppers them with some hardball questions. Apple is invited to send a representative every year, and every year, Apple declines.

There was no shortage of contentious topics this year. The subject of Google Dart was raised (“Good luck with that,” said Brendan). There was also plenty of discussion about the recent DRM proposal submitted to the HTML working group. There was a disturbing level of agreement amongst all the panelists that some form of DRM for video was needed because, hey, that’s just the way things go…

As an aside, I must say I found the lack of imagination on display to be pretty disheartening. Two years ago, Chris was on the Browser Wars panel representing Microsoft, defending the EOT format because, hey, that’s just the way things go. Without some form of DRM, he argued, we couldn’t have fonts on the web. Well, the web found a way. Now Chris is representing Google but the argument remains the same. DRM, so the argument goes, is the only way we’ll get video on the web because that’s what the “rights holders” demand. And yet, if you are a photographer, no such special consideration is afforded to you. The img element has no DRM and people are managing just fine, thank you. Video, apparently, is a special case …just like fonts. ahem

Anyway…

The subject of vendor prefixes also came up. Specifically, the looming prospect of non-webkit browsers parsing -webkit prefixed properties was raised.

I saw a pattern amongst all three subjects: the DRM proposal, Dart, and browsers implementing another browser’s vendor prefix. All three proposals were made to address a genuine problem. The proposals all suffer from varying degrees of batshit craziness but they certainly galvanised a lot of discussion.

For example, Brendan said that while Google Dart may not stand a hope in hell of supplanting JavaScript, some of the ideas it contains may well end up influencing the development of ECMAScript.

Similarly, Mozilla’s plan for vendor-prefixing certainly caused all parties to admit the problem: the W3C was moving too slow; Apple should have submitted proprietary properties for standardisation sooner; Mozilla, Microsoft, and Opera should have been innovating faster; and web developers should have been treating vendor-prefixed properties as experimental features, not stable parts of a spec.

So the proposal to do something batshit crazy and implement -webkit-prefixed CSS properties has actually had some very positive effects …but there’s no reason to actually go ahead and do it!

I tried to make this point during the audience participation part of the panel, but it was like banging my head against a brick wall. Chaals kept repeating the problem case, but I wasn’t disputing the problem; I was trying to point out that the proposed solution wouldn’t fix the problem.

It was a classic case of the same kind of thinking we saw in the SOPA proposal:

  1. Something must be done!
  2. Implementing -webkit prefixes is something.
  3. Something has been done.

The problem is that it won’t work. Adding “like Webkit” to the user-agent string will probably have much more of an effect and frankly, I don’t care if any of the browsers do that. At this point, a little bit more pissing into the bloated cesspool of user-agent strings is hardly going to matter. A browser’s user-agent string isn’t an identifier, it’s a reverse-chronological history of the web. Why not update the history booklet to include the current predilection amongst developers for Webkit browsers on mobile?

But implementing -webkit vendor prefixes? Pointless! If a developer is only building and testing their sites for one class of device or browser, simply implementing that browser’s prefixed CSS is just putting a band aid on a decapitation.

So I was kind of hoping that Mozilla would just come right out and say that maybe they wouldn’t actually go ahead and do this but hey, look at all the great discussion it generated (just like Dart, just like the DRM proposal). But sadly, no. Brendan categorically stated that the proposal was not presented in order to foment discussion. And in follow-up tweets, he wrote that he actually expected it to level the mobile browser playing field. That’s an admirably optimistic viewpoint but it’s sadly self-delusional.

And what will happen when implementing -webkit prefixes fails to level the playing field? We’ll be left with deliberately broken browsers.

Once something ships in a browser, it’s very, very hard to ever remove it. During the Dart discussion, Chris talked about the possibility of removing Dart from Chrome if developers don’t take to it. Turning to the Microsoft representative he asked rhetorically, “I mean, do you guys still ship VBScript?”

The answer?

“Yes.”

Have you published a response to this? :