Playing TAG

I was up in London yesterday to spend the day with the web developers of a Clearleft client, talking front-end architecture and strategies for implementing responsive design. ‘Twas a good day, although London always tires me out quite a bit.

On this occasion, I didn’t head straight back to Brighton. Instead I braved the subterranean challenges of the Tube to make my way across london to Google Campus, where a panel discussion was taking place. This was Meet The TAG.

TAG is the Technical Architecture Group at the W3C. It doesn’t work on any one particular spec. Instead, it’s a sort of meta-group to steer how standards get specified.

Gathered onstage yesterday evening were TAG members Anne van Kesteren, Tim Berners-Lee, Alex Russell, Yehuda Katz, and Daniel Appelquist (Henry Thompson and Sergey Konstantinov were also there, in the audience). Once we had all grabbed a (free!) beer and settled into our seats, Bruce kicked things off with an excellent question: in the intros, multiple TAG members mentioned their work as guiding emerging standards to make sure they matched the principles of the TAG …but what are those principles?

It seemed like a fairly straightforward question, but it prompted the first rabbit hole of the evening as Alex and Yehuda focussed in on the principle of “layering”—stacking technologies in a sensible way that provides the most power to web developers. It’s an important principle for sure, but it didn’t really answer Bruce’s question. I was tempted to raise my hand and reformulate Bruce’s question into three parts:

  1. Does the Technical Architecture Group have design principles?
  2. If so, what are there?
  3. And are they written down somewhere?

There’s a charter and that contains a mission statement, but that’s not the same as documenting design principles. There is an extensible web manifesto—that does document design principles—which contains the signatures of many (but not all) TAG members …so does that represent the views of the TAG? I’d like to get some clarification on that.

The extensible web manifesto does a good job of explaining the thinking behind projects like web components. It’s all about approaching the design of new browser APIs in a sensible (and extensible) way.

I mentioned that the TAG were a kind of meta-standards body, and in a way, what the extensible web manifesto—and examples like web components—are proposing is a meta-approach to how browsers implement new features. Instead of browser makers (in collaboration with standards bodies) creating new elements, UI widgets and APIs, developers will create new elements and UI widgets.

When Yehuda was describing this process, he compared it with the current situation. Currently, developers have to petition standards bodies begging them to implement some new kind of widget and eventually, if you’re lucky, browsers might implement it. At this point I interrupted to ask—somewhat tongue-in-cheek—”So if we get web components, what do we need standards bodies for?” Alex had an immediate response for that: standards bodies can look at what developers are creating, find the most common patterns, and implement them as new elements and widgets.

“I see,” I said. “So browsers and standards bodies will have a kind of ‘rough consensus’ based on …running code?”

“Yes!”, said Alex, laughing. “Jeremy Keith, ladies and gentlemen!”

So the idea with web components (and more broadly, the extensible web) is that developers will be able to create new elements with associated JavaScript functionality. Currently developers are creating new widgets using nothing but JavaScript. Ideally, web components will result in more declarative solutions and reduce our current reliance on JavaScript to do everything. I’m all for that.

But one thing slightly puzzled me. The idea of everyone creating whatever new elements they want isn’t a new one. That’s the whole idea behind XML (and by extension, XHTML) and yet the very same people who hated the idea of that kind of extensibility are the ones who are most eager about web components.

Playing devil’s advocate, I asked “How come the same people who hated RDF love web components?” (although what I really meant was RDFa—a means of extending HTML).

I got two answers. The first one was from Alex. Crucially, he said, a web component comes bundled with instructions on how it works. So it’s useful. That’s a big, big difference to the Tower of Babel scenario where everyone could just make up their own names for elements, but browsers have no idea what those names mean so effectively they’re meaningless.

That was the serious answer. The other answer I got was from Tim Berners-Lee. With a twinkle in his eye and an elbow in Alex’s ribs he said, “Well, these youngsters who weren’t around when we doing things with XML all want to do things with JSON now, which is a much cooler format because you can store number types in it. So that’s why they want to do everything in JavaScript.” Cheeky trickster!

Anyway, there was plenty of food for thought in the discussion of web components. This really is a radically new and different way of adding features to browsers. In theory, it shifts the balance of power much more to developers (who currently have to hack together everything using JavaScript). If it works, it will be A Good Thing and result in expanding HTML’s vocabulary with genuinely useful features. I fear there may be a rocky transition to this new way of thinking, and I worry about backwards compatibility, but I can’t help but admire the audacity of the plan.

The evening inevitably included a digression into the black hole of DRM. As always, the discussion got quite heated and I don’t think anybody was going to change their minds. I tried to steer things away from the ethical questions and back to the technical side of things by voicing my concerns with the security model of EME. Reading the excellent description by Henri, sentences like this should give you the heebie-jeebies:

Neither the browser nor the JavaScript program understand the bytes.

But the whole DRM discussion was, fortunately, curtailed by Anne who was ostensibly moderating the panel. Before it was though, Sir Tim made one final point. Because of the heat of the discussion, people were calling for us to separate the societal questions (around intellectual property and payment) from the technical ones (around encryption). But, Sir Tim pointed out, that separation isn’t really possible. Even something as simple as the hyperlink has political assumptions built in about the kind of society that would value being able to link resources together and share them around.

That’s an important point, well worth remembering: all software is political. That’s one of the reasons why I’d really appreciate an explicit documentation of design principles from the Technical Architecture Group.

Still, it was a very valuable event. Bruce has also written down his description of the evening. Many thanks to Dan and the rest of the TAG team for putting it together. I’m very glad I went along. As well as the panel discussion, it was really nice to chat to Paul and have the chance to congratulate Jeni in person on her appearance on her OBE.

Alas, I couldn’t stick around too long—I had to start making the long journey back to Brighton—so I said my goodbyes and exited. I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to Tim Berners-Lee directly, which is probably just as well: I’m sure I would’ve embarrassed myself by being a complete fanboy.

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