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.