Reigniting the browser wars

Alex Russell calls for a return to the browser wars, citing (among other things) the stagnancy of the W3C as a part of the problem, with the argument that browser makers are the ones who can innovate and they’re being prevented from doing so by a slavish insistence on “standards”. Meanwhile, Andy Clarke calls for the current W3C CSS Working Group to be immediately disbanded, Opera file an antitrust complaint against Microsoft, the HTML5 spec removes a recommendation for non-patent-encumbered video formats after pressure from Nokia and Apple, and all the old fights start up again. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes. The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria. Alex has a point. There is nothing but truth in the old saw that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Evolutionary theory tells us that actual forward progress happens faster in small communities, not in big ones. Browser manufacturer innovation is exemplified by Microsoft creating XMLHttpRequest, which ushered in the shiny world of Ajax; standards committee “innovation” is exemplified by XHTML 2.0, about which no-one gives a shit. Forward the innovation. Let the browser builders off the leash of blind and feverish compliance with “standards” made up by committee. However. 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. Don’t think of the output of this “innovation” as XMLHttpRequest. Think of it as the IE filter property, which is, as described on that page, “not available on the Macintosh platform”. For those of you innocent of such things, this allows you, in Internet Explorer, to apply a visual effect to a bit of an HTML page, where that visual effect is actually implemented by DirectX, Microsoft’s graphics library. Good luck porting that to Safari if it takes off. Oh no, hang on, it’s “not available on the Macintosh platform”, even in Mac IE, is it? Not that Mac IE exists any more. The point here is very much the same as the point behind objections to DRM technologies on music. When browser manufacturers are told “go ahead and innovate — we want to see progress”, it’s jolly difficult for them to not think “hey, I know, why don’t we take this opportunity to provide something that we can do and other browsers can’t? Then, when people start using it, we’ve locked all their users into our browser!” There are corporate executives the world over furiously masturbating themselves into unconsciousness at the very thought of that technique being open to them again. Perhaps you’ve bought a few products from their corporations in the past. Standards bodies aren’t really there to think up ideas, although that’s what they seem to have evolved into. They’re there to say, now, hang on a second, if you do that then what about all the people with no working eyes / some other operating system / touchscreens / no money for patent licences. They’re there to make sure that the web, which is meant to be there for everyone, isn’t separated into the haves and the have-nots, where the have-nots is everyone who won’t or can’t jump on the latest bandwagon. This is precisely why Silverlight is trying to supplant the web: to divide us into haves and have-nots. It’s why Flash is trying to supplant the web: to divide us into haves and have-nots. It’s why XUL as an application-development language for web apps was doomed. It’s possible that the people Alex is calling on to do “innovation” in the browser will put the best interests of the web first, and the best interests of their companies and their browsers second. It’s also possible that a duck will fly in the window right now, juggle some lemon pies, and then deliver IE8, but I don’t think that that’s very likely either. The current mess over the proposed <video> element is a perfect case in point here: Nokia and Apple have refused to contemplate using the suggested Ogg Theora video codec as a baseline format, because they fear submarine patents despite the Theora project’s assurances. OK, they may have a point. However, the HTML5 people have stated, after this pressure from Nokia and Apple, that “we need a codec that is known to not require per-unit or per-distributor licensing, that is compatible with the open source development model, that is of sufficient quality as to be usable, and that is not an additional submarine patent risk for large companies”. It is just not possible for such a codec to exist. So, what we, the ordinary web developers of the world, are left with is precisely the same cluster-fuck that we currently have when publishing video: it is still not possible for me to make a video and put it on the web with some assurance that everyone can actually see the fucking thing. How is browser vendors’ “innovation” going to help with this? If they were truly “innovative” then we’d see them trying to co-operate on issues like this, because how can it be bad for ordinary web users and web developers to make it easier to publish and watch video? Standards organisations aren’t there to dictate what Microsoft and Apple and Mozilla and Opera are “allowed” to implement. They’re there to provide a voice for people who will otherwise be merrily buttfucked and then thrown over the side in the pursuit of “innovation”. Think Web Standards Project rather than W3C. Of course, the WaSP seems to have lost its way and its voice a bit recently; are they coming back? It’s easy to just say “no, no, no” to new ideas, but it’s equally easy to say, well, I’m alright, Jack, if you’re not coming along with us then you’ll just get left behind, regardless of whether you’re not coming along because you’re unable to. If you think that Apple were right to resist video formats, ask yourself if you’d have been happy if the HTML5 spec had suggested Windows Media format as the default. If you think that browser vendors should innovate, ask yourself how happy you’d be implementing DirectX on a Macintosh. Fix things, yeah. Put some innovation back in, yeah. Let’s, though, try to not throw out the baby along with the bathwater.

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