The web is a different problem

One of the most persistent criticisms of web technologies is that they evolve slowly, indeed, too slowly. Often the argument is raised that the process of standards is antithetical to “innovation” (for innovation read “making cool stuff up”).

To contrast with this glacial change, we’re typically pointed toward the wonders of platforms like iOS and Android, where change takes place at breakneck speed. Or we’re pointed toward any number of open source projects, for example SASS, to demonstrate that we can evolve web standards faster outside the W3C (afterall, CSS hasn’t kept place with SASS/LESS… therefor the W3C is clearly useless)

Pretty sure that already happened. SCSS, Coffeescript, etc. The W3C doesn’t have influence anymore AFAIK

And occasionally, this erupts in an orgy of revolutionary fervour, where we need to man the barricades, and

dissolve the W3C, and run the web like an open source project. No more specs, just commits. Does Linux need a standards body?

I guess Joe hasn’t taken a look at the WHATWG’s “HTML”lately. An unversioned. constantly, continuously evolving potage, wherein creeps all kinds of at the every least questionable “innovations”, whose trajectory is unburdened by such trifling challenges as the need for intellectual property policies, or getting anyone to actually implement their stuff.

But let’s step back a pace. Is there really actually such a problem here? And if so, exactly what is that problem? And, are the proposals, to the extent they do exist, likely to help, or make matters worse?

Firstly, it is fair to say, that for the best part of the first decade of this century, we saw considerable stagnation in the development of web standards. The W3C went down the rabbit hole of XHTML2, and CSS 2 almost entirely stagnated (I’l have more to say on that in a second). During that time, innovation came almost entirely from developers discovering techniques which worked with existing browser capabilities, and through JavaScript libraries.

The last three or four years have however seen an explosion of innovation at the browser level. This has included:

  • Huge improvements in the performance of JavaScript engines
  • Fantastic new CSS features, that have within a couple of years landed in all modern browsers
  • Sophisticated new APIs across a broad range of functionality, again now widespread across most if not all modern browsers (Selectors API, Geolocation, offline, localStorage, 2D and 3D canvas to name just a few)

Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should ask, is there a problem at all? Are we really seeing innovation – from standards proposal to widespread browser adoption in the order of 10 years?

Let’s take a look at an actual example. Dave Hyatt announced CSS Gradients in WebKit nightlies April 14th 2008. More or less simultaneously, Apple formally proposed these as part of CSS3. Gradients have been supported in Firefox since 3.6 (released Jan 2010), Opera since 11.1 (final release mid 2011), Internet Explorer 10 (developer releases early 2011). So, from first released and proposed as a standard to very widespread adoption in around 3 years.

We’ve seen similar timeframes for other CSS features, as well as “HTML5” features like the Selectors API, appcache, geolocation, localStorage.

So, to put it bluntly, I think the problem is overstated. We seem to have arrived at an approach that both enables the exploration and implementation of novel features in browsers, which are also widely adopted across browsers. It’s that second part that is most important, and I’ll return to it in a moment.

But I also want to quickly address why I think we seem to have thrown off the stagnation of previous years. I’d argue it comes down to stepping back from the monolithic approach of earlier W3C recommendations (CSS 1 and 2, XHTML2, SVG), toward a much more modular approach, as exemplified by CSS3, but as also seen with geolocation and the selectors API. A corollary to this is, I’d argue, that HTML5 is too monolithic and needs to be fragmented (which in some ways is happening).

But back to the real issue. The web is a different problem. It makes little if any sense to compare innovation of the web ecosystem with that of iOS, Android or other platforms. The web faces challenges far far greater (and has goals far more important). A platform such as iOS can abandon legacy applications, content and hardware, (along with their users) with little compunction. It can (and does) make developers and content creators wishing to participate jump through any number of hoops. It has a single dictatorial decision maker, beholden to no one, and nothing other than itself. And it generates extraordinary revenues, which can be reinvested into the ongoing development of the platform.

The web is different. It values interoperablity, backwards compatibility. It’s goal is to bring access to the same information to billions across the world, on all manner of devices.
Its custodians are, in my opinion, scandalously under-resourced, given just how much wealth the web has created for so many, perhaps above all Google and Apple.

Without the web, Google would not exist, and Apple’s core engine of growth, iOS devices would essentially not either.

So, rather than generally criticising the W3C, or going so far as calling for its dissolution, we should focus on how well in many ways it has done an almost impossible task – getting companies which are fierce commercial rivals to sit down, work together and agree on core technologies they will each, and all, implement, even while at the same time, these same competitors are involved in significant legal conflicts with one another.

Can the W3C be improved? Certainly. But before suggesting solutions, let’s identify, and demonstrate with evidence, genuine problems. Then, when devising solutions, it pays to ask what evidence there is that those solutions will not only solve the problems identified, but also ensure the ongoing cooperation that has given rise to the web.

No responses to “The web is a different problem”:

  1. Not everybody considers the way in which apple (iphone, ipad) or google (android) deals with application deployment as progress. The “change [that] takes place at breakneck speed” on those platforms does not necessarily equate to “improvement”.

    Thanks to Moore’s law, yes, mobile phone hardware has become capable of dealing with real applications; and yes, some companies jumped on it, quickly, in a feeble attempt to corner the market, before anybody else would. In vain, I suspect. I don’t think anybody will be able to corner the market on the long run.

    I personally think it is wiser to watch and learn from these early experiments, to see what is truly useful versus what is just being hyped to people with outspoken consumerist attitudes, and too much loose money sitting between their current debt balance and their credit card limits.

    Web technologies advance at a pace that I find much more meaningful.

    The pace of improvement on the web is fast enough for something that is nothing short of an underlying infrastructure and foundation, supposed to support the enormous load of existing and new applications. Why should everybody let themselves be dragged into unproven experiments?

  2. I read your and Alex’s lengthy discussion on twitter yesterday, and I must say I was a bit surprised with regard to the same “is there really a problem” that you speak of. Of course, theoretically, the web could progress a lot faster, but is it not already progressing faster, and, more importantly, in a better way, than it has ever done before?

    Also, I firmly believe that the adoption of new features in new browsers is only the secondary variable in “the web moving forward”. The most important one is user adoption of new browsers, and the death of legacy browsers. (Chrome Frame FTW Alex!)

    Also, I was very surprised that Alex expressed a (what seemed to be sincere) positive attitude towards the browser wars of the nineties. I am still not sure if he was joking or not?

  3. Not joking.

    • By: Counter Space
    • September 23rd, 2011

    Just read Joe Hewitt’s article on the web where he referenced this one. He had absolutely NO examples of what he was talking about, he believes in ‘competent, sympathetic, benevolent leaders’ which is a complete fallacy (Remember ‘Do no evil’ anyone?), and poses scary strawmen arguments about how the web isn’t moving fast enough because somebody isn’t in charge and monetising it. I look at the US legal system and see how all the patents and trademarks and other ‘property grabs’ over ludicrous things such as genetic sequences have competely killed innovation and think to myself: So Joe wants to kill off the web, too?

    Joe hasn’t, obviously, considered anything, at all, about what he’s posted in his article including what he says he thinks the ‘web should be’ let alone the lack of solutions.

    Let’s stick to some of the better standards that we have and keep the W3C who, for instance, champions web standards that care, in great detail, about disabled users, for instance. I’m sick of the Joe Hewitts of the world with their knee-jerk reactions absolutely and complete devoid of any real thinking. Please, stop posting on the web until you’ve had your 12th grade teacher read your essay and spray it full of red ink first, will you? You seem to have forgotten how to write and how to communicate solid ideas.

    • By: Asa Dotzler
    • September 23rd, 2011

    “Joe hasn’t, obviously, considered anything, at all, about what he’s posted in his article including what he says he thinks the ‘web should be’ let alone the lack of solutions.”

    This is horse shit. You may not like what Joe’s saying, but he’s been thinking about this for as long as just about anyone. On top of that, he’s also speaking as an advocate here — and framing it as you have, that he’s out to kill the Web, is just more garbage.

    I don’t agree with a big chunk of what Joe’s saying, but I know for a fact that he’s deeply considerate and thoughtful on these issues and that his concerns are as genuine as they come.

    – A

    • By: John
    • September 23rd, 2011

    Calling this post “staggeringly arrogant” is hardly thoughtful and considerate. Calling something “horseshit” is hardly either sadly.

    Frankly, I don’t understand what Joe thinks the problem is in any non trivial way (it’s a kind of chicken lilting really – the web is ending the web is ending, because iOS is popular), and he himself says he has no idea what the solution is (though I guess it includes dissolving the W3C, and having a single code base for the one true browser, owned by a benevolent dictator, which may or may not fork).

    Which is simply fantasy, is never going to happen, can’t possibly happen, and more importantly, *is not the web*.

    One of the points to my post is that this is far from the firs time we’ve heard “the W3C does’t work”, “the web is moribund”, “something has to be done”.

    But what? About what? And why?

    • By: Counter Space
    • September 23rd, 2011

    At least horseshit is still useful as fertilizer.

    Joe’s article is about as useful as the vague “We’re here to help.” Tom Cruise states, over and over, in an agonisingly long and pointless video. Help? How? Yes, Joe, like Tom, is passionate and cares, but about what, exactly? There isn’t a single real issue brought up, there is some useless bashing of the W3C without a single example. It’s great that passion and care can produce such emotional output but to what end? If it was Tom Cruise, instead of Joe Hewitt, speaking from his own dubious standpoint about web standards would you be so non-critical of him? Probably not.

    Why doesn’t Joe give people the chance to publicly respond to his postings the way John has, here? Joe has a horn to toot but isn’t making much sense and then depriv
    es people the chance of having a healthy dialogue on his site or asking him to clarify what he’s on about. Joe’s emotional and meandering post is not very impressive and proves, even more to me and others who are lucid, that Joe has closed arguments and absolutely cannot handle any criticism or feedback. Is that because he knows what he writes about is so weak? He didn’t even properly reference anything from John’s article that he had a problem with that he thought was “staggeringly arrogant”. Who is really being staggeringly arrogant here?

    • By: Vincent
    • September 23rd, 2011

    Web is a mess. It had to be hyperTEXT, but become hell of mutually exclusive technologies, plus hybrid of “perfect publishing” with power of “real applications”. As you WELL know, any hybrids are ugly and useless. Welcome HTML-5! :) Hybrid of novadays, which is dead, but corpse still shaked by thousands of lemmings to imaginate life.
    Drop this rubbish, just make clean publishing language with links and enjoy! Wanna bells and whistles? Never say HTML, just go and make your lovely Delphi/C++/C# application.

    • By: Terry
    • September 24th, 2011

    The problem is that they can’t even support the previous standards, so they don’t have a foundation to grow upon. Adding new features (which become standards) to the standards they don’t adhere to is akin to placing more scoops on a vehicle whose motor only fires on 5 out of 6 cylinders. Innovation needs to stop until the browsers can get their act together.

    Competing on features will always lose when half the world can’t be seen the way it was intended because you don’t have the basics. Sure, it might stifle innovation a little, but would you rather have 1% of the population (at best) see your innovation, or would you rather have 100% of the world in sync with each other?

    Anarchy in the web world is fragmented information disbursement and goes against the entire purpose of the internet.

    • By: Otome Charles Opuoro.
    • September 24th, 2011

    An interesting read, more to state, I thoroughly agree with Erik Poupaert’s observations.

    The pace at which the web advances is apt or core might I state, to it’s objective to facilitate interoperabaility, making information available to heterogenuos platforms and devices.

    Also, not to be forgotten, thw writer’s statement that imply the comendable work of thw W3C and why it shouldn’t be dissolved.

    Thanks for this.

    Kind regards.


  4. […] veteran John Allsopp writes The web is a different problem. It makes little if any sense to compare innovation of the web […]

  5. […] 4. Веб – это другая проблема […]

  6. […] Other relevant posts in this saga are: Alex Russell’s Things the W3C Should Stop Doing Joe Hewitt’s Web Technologies Need an Owner John Allsopp’s The web is a different problem […]

  7. […] The web is a different problem […]

  8. I think that the W3C plays a vital role in the web of ensuring there is an agreed upon standard that everyone should be implementing.

    I also agree that “HTML5” is really too big an umbrella to cover everything it is meant to cover. How, as a browser vendor, can you decide what to ‘implement next’ when you look at the myriad of DOM, CSSDOM, DOM API, storage, ES5, CSS3, etc, where would you start?!

    Because of this I think we’ll see more browser fragmentation and result in a rough ride on the web.

    • By: Norm
    • October 5th, 2011

    I love this part of the post: “The web is different. … It’s goal is to bring access to the same information to billions across the world, on all manner of devices.”

    I recall the web originally as concept supported by a protocol to exchange information (yes – I’m old enough to remember the time before browser compatibility: we were just to read the stuff from another university)

    Are Big Companies the problem by not accepting or implementing standards? Hmmm: too easy.

    How did we get to this state of affairs?

    10-15 years ago, IT directors decided that for security reasons, employees could not download or install anything. Microsoft obliged by locking down everything for users. (or maybe it was the other way around…)

    From that day on, if you wanted to sell an app to a large market – read a big company, you had to sell it the old fashioned way. And hope in the end the IT director would install it.

    But wait: there was a solution. Build an app with data on the web, accessed by a standard browser. Bonus: no more porting apps from one OS to another. No pesky IT director to sell on my app. Heaven on earth! (I over simplify – but that the gist of it).

    (segway: I think there could have been other solutions – OS could have implemented sandbox that limited access on the device but let people install anything they want to consume web data is one example. Browsers would not I think have become what they are today – people would have gone on writing desktop apps/thin clients)

    Of course we want to reach a broad market, so it has to work in all browsers, with all kinds of version. So Let’s ask the W3C to make sense of it.

    Problem is, those Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, Linux open source communities etc. can’t seem to get with the program. Where is that ubiquitous browser? Common guys, help me out here – be compatible.

    But that may not necessarily align with the business objectives of those companies…

    Sometimes I think the W3C is like the United Nations… With enough pressure (read demand), groups that would not normally come together will do so because it benefits them.

    Blaming the W3C because the players won’t play ball is simplistic. The IT ecosystem is a mix of conflicting interests: Public companies try to grow and lock in market share, IT Directors search for simple homogeneous no-trouble platforms to manage, and (at least some) developers want to become millionaires by writing one script that will work everywhere.

    I for one am glad there is a group of people who agree to meet and move standards forward, even if they come into play after many of the innovative solutions and problems are discovered and hashed out in proprietary solutions in various browsers.

    The post I’d really like to read is: What needs to change in the IT ecosystem so that W3C type endeavors gather the support of all Companies who implement the standards?

    Of course, if that post was indeed written, it might also improve the effectiveness of the United Nations…

  9. […] their time in other platforms that serve their needs better.. The arrogance of Web evangelists is staggering. The counterpoint to this discussion is: The web is only interesting because it is a standard. […]

  10. […] viability.I’ve engaged folks like Joe Hewitt in strenuous, but I believe healthy and important debate about these issues.As I considered in my recent Web Directions presentation, A Dao of Web Design […]

    • By: albequerque
    • October 10th, 2012

    funny how this page fails in Chrome, and has “holly molly” 38 Errors in W3 validation, for a very basic layout that’s staggering lol

    • By: albequerque
    • October 10th, 2012

    @AARON POWELL -> That’s the point of open source development – lots of brains and millions of hours invested over relatively short period of time. That’s the reason why IE, Opera and Safari must cease to exist. Imagine FF and Chrome ruling the web. Chrome only because it has roots in open source Chromium, which is awesome on Linux distro’s to it’s Mozilla Iceweasel counterpart, since FF is not in repositories by default. Just imagine how much simpler for everyone would life be in the field, if at least Microsoft stopped their vomit of IE code. Even IE 9 has a great number of issues including flash problems and only after a year of existence #10 coming out, while millions and millions are still using 6 and 7/ DNS’s should just block requests with IE headers

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