Today, the distant future

It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about living in the future. It’s also a bit pointless. After all, any moment after the big bang is a future when viewed from any point in time before it.

Still, it’s kind of fun when a sci-fi date rolls around. Like in 2015 when we reached the time depicted in Back To The Future 2, or in 2019 when we reached the time of Blade Runner.

In 2022 we are living in the future of web standards. Again, technically, we’re always living in the future of any past discussion of web standards, but this year is significant …in a very insignificant way.

It all goes back to 2008 and an interview with Hixie, editor of the HTML5 spec at the WHATWG at the time. In it, he mentioned the date 2022 as the milestone for having two completely interoperable implementations.

The far more important—and ambitious—date was 2012, when HTML5 was supposed to become a Candidate Recommendation, which is standards-speak for done’n’dusted.

But the mere mention of the year 2022 back in the year 2008 was too much for some people. Jeff Croft, for example, completely lost his shit (Jeff had a habit of posting angry rants and then denying that he was angry or ranty, but merely having a bit of fun).

The whole thing was a big misunderstanding and soon irrelevant: talk of 2022 was dropped from HTML5 discussions. But for a while there, it was fascinating to see web designers and developers contemplate a year that seemed ludicriously futuristic. Jeff wrote:

God knows where I’ll be in 13 years. Quite frankly, I’ll be pretty fucking disappointed in myself (and our entire industry) if I’m writing HTML in 13 years.

That always struck me as odd. If I thought like that, I’d wonder what the point would be in making anything on the web to begin with (bear in mind that both my own personal website and The Session are now entering their third decade of life).

I had a different reaction to Jeff, as I wrote in 2010:

Many web developers were disgusted that such a seemingly far-off date was even being mentioned. My reaction was the opposite. I began to pay attention to HTML5.

But Jeff was far from alone. Scott Gilbertson wrote an angry article on Webmonkey:

If you’re thinking that planning how the web will look and work 13 years from now is a little bit ridiculous, you’re not alone.

Even if your 2022 ronc-o-matic web-enabled toaster (It slices! It dices! It browses! It arouses!) does ship with Firefox v22.3, will HTML still be the dominant language of web? Given that no one can really answer that question, does it make sense to propose a standard so far in the future?

(I’m re-reading that article in the current version of Firefox: 95.0.2.)

Brian Veloso wrote on his site:

Two-thousand-twenty-two. That’s 14 years from now. Can any of us think that far? Wouldn’t our robot overlords, whether you welcome them or not, have taken over by then? Will the internet even matter then?

From the comments on Jeff’s post, there’s Corey Dutson:

2022: God knows what the Internet will look like at that point. Will we even have websites?

Dan Rubin, who has indeed successfully moved from web work to photography, wrote:

I certainly don’t intend to be doing “web work” by that time. I’m very curious to see where the web actually is in 14 years, though I can’t imagine that HTML5 will even get that far; it’ll all be obsolete before 2022.

Joshua Works made a prediction that’s worryingly close to reality:

I’ll be surprised if website-as-HTML is still the preferred method for moving around the tons of data we create, especially in the manner that could have been predicted in 2003 or even today. Hell, iPods will be over 20 years old by then and if everything’s not run as an iPhone App, then something went wrong.

Someone with the moniker Grand Caveman wrote:

In 2022 I’ll be 34, and hopefully the internet will be obsolete by then.

Perhaps the most level-headed observation came from Jonny Axelsson:

The world in 2022 will be pretty much like the world in 2009.

The world in 2009 is pretty much like 1996 which was pretty much like the world in 1983 which was pretty much like the world in 1970. Some changes are fairly sudden, others are slow, some are dramatic, others subtle, but as a whole “pretty much the same” covers it.

The Web in 2022 will not be dramatically different from the Web in 2009. It will be less hot and it will be less cool. The Web is a project, and as it succeeds it will fade out of our attention and into the background. We don’t care about things when they work.

Now that’s a sensible perspective!

So who else is looking forward to seeing what the World Wide Web is like in 2036?

I must remember to write a blog post then and link back to this one. I have no intention of trying to predict the future, but I’m willing to bet that hyperlinks will still be around in 14 years.

Speaking of long bets…

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Zachary Dunn

Wow. I wasn’t even in web development yet and I’ve been using HTML5 my entire career. I can’t imagine hoping the web would be subsumed by native apps or thinking it would become obsolete. That was the era of move fast and break things, though, so imagining something being stable for more than a decade must have been hard.

marxwood

Very interesting post adactio.com/journal/18743. In 2009, moving from Flash to HTML5 our team discussed that HTML5 will be with us for, at least, next 20 years. Today in 2022, heading more and more towards semantic web, I think the same way. Thanks @adactio for this reminder.

# Posted by marxwood on Friday, January 14th, 2022 at 9:27am

Prateek Rungta

“Today, distant the future” by @adactio is a good reminder of how grandiose we sometimes project the future to be and how sweeping our attribution of ‘change’ and ‘progress’ can be on everything around us. True for tech, true for a lot more: adactio.com/journal/18743

blog.jim-nielsen.com

I just finished reading Jeremy’s article “Today, the distant future”. It’s fascinating to read predictions about HTML and the web from fourteen years ago. Jeremy ends by asking:

So who else is looking forward to seeing what the World Wide Web is like in 2036?

🙋‍♂️ I am.

Given that I have little confidence in my ability to make predictions, I’m timeboxing myself in writing this post—hence the title.

So where do I see the web in another fourteen years?

I agree with Jonny Axelsson (who Jeremy quotes in his article) and his prediction from fourteen years ago:

The Web in 2022 will not be dramatically different from the Web in 2009. It will be less hot and it will be less cool. The Web is a project, and as it succeeds it will fade out of our attention and into the background.

I think that trend will continue such that the web in 2036 will not be that different from the web in 2022 or even the web in 2009—it will still be HTML, CSS, JS, URLs, browsers, etc.

Here’s my perception of how the web changed from 2008 to 2022:

  • Less vanilla, more framework
  • Less server-side, more client-side
  • Less HTML, more JavaScript
  • Less CSS, more JavaScript
  • Less JavaScript, more something that compiles to JavaScript

In fact, Jeremy quotes Scott Gilbertson fourteen years ago as saying:

will HTML still be the dominant language of web?

Is JavaScript the most dominant language of the web? Perhaps the most vogue. In 2022 it’s not uncommon to see a tiny bit of HTML like <div id="root"></div> and then megabytes of JavaScript to do everything else.

And you know what? It’s possible the behemoth that is JavaScript in 2022 continues to metastasize as we move towards 2036, especially with technologies like WASM. I wouldn’t rule out the lordship of JavaScript as a possibility of the future.

However, I also think it’s possible—and dare I predict—to say we are peaking in our divergence and are now facing a convergence back towards building with the grain of the web and its native primitives.

Why do I say that? In our quest for progress, we explored so far beyond the standards-based platform that we came to appreciate the modesty of the approach “use the platform”.

For example, the pendulum of React is swinging. Significant architectural improvements for improved server-side rendering have been in the works for a long time, meaning less client-side JavaScript for everything and more server-side rendered HTML. Also of note, the framework appears to be warming up to the idea of web components, opening the possibility to use less JavaScript and more HTML, less framework and more standards-based platform (who knows, maybe by 2036 we’ll have HTML imports and Dave will find peace).

In a similar vein, I find the ethos of Deno interesting because of its bet on being “webby”. Rather than create its own conventions and APIs that deviate from web standards, it is converging towards the idea of a single web platform with a unified set of APIs, no matter the environment or runtime. For example, eschew the variety of different APIs for doing async HTTP requests and instead standardized around the fetch API everywhere. Fetch is fetch, whether on the client, on the server, on the edge, or anywhere else. Visa fetch: it’s everywhere you want to be.

I think new tools like this could be directionally indicative of where the web is headed (or headed back to).

Ultimately, I don’t think HTML is going anywhere. As Yehuda says:

HTML (especially when enhanced with ARIA) is humanity’s best effort to create a single set of portable semantics for the interaction patterns in computing.

HTML has been around a long time and weathered many contenders. I don’t see its status being overtaken in a “mere” fourteen years. On the contrary, I am venturing to guess we double down on HTML and its uses over the next fourteen years.

Ok, I should stop there because I could be very wrong about all the above. But before I stop, there is one last prediction I would like to make.

This is a prediction that comes with more confidence than the above: this blog post will still be accessible via its originally published URL in 2036. That means however wrong I am about the web in 2036, this blog post will still be accessible and subject to ridicule with the perspective of hindsight. And you know what? If that’s the only thing I’m right about, I’ll be satisfied with my predictions.

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Previously on this day

2 years ago I wrote Browser defaults

What would the repercussions be if browsers were to tweak some of their default behaviours?

7 years ago I wrote HTTPS

Doing the right thing.

11 years ago I wrote The URI is the thing

My name is Jeremy and I am a URL fetishist.

13 years ago I wrote The Audio of the System of the World

For your listening pleasure.