31 October 2008

Standard nonsense

My thoughts on web standards change on an almost weekly basis. I now consider myself a sceptical evangelist! I believe in web standards as an end but I do not agree with the means by which we seem to be getting there. I think we should be using web standards, but I live and work in the real world where web standards remain nothing more than a laudable goal and an occasional convenient excuse.

Currently, we have HTML 5 and CSS 3 and JavaScript 2 as the shining examples of where we are heading with web standards. I am aware that JavaScript 2 is no more (the end of a great folly in my opinion), however, these three serve to demonstrate my point.

The vast majority of users on the web, and surely its the users who are most important - not us developers, are using Internet Explorer as their primary web browser. IE is a fine product for browsing the web today and I suspect it fulfills the needs of those users in the vast majority of cases.

A good proportion of users are using Firefox with many using Firefox 3. This too is a fine browser. As is Safari which dominates the remaining small proportion of users.

At this point, others may launch into a diatribe about how users should switch browsers. Some may wish to analyse the statistics on a deeper level. But I wish to just re-iterate that for users, their current browser works fine! Why are we - the developers - getting so upset about users not changing their browser?

HTML 5, CSS 3 and JavaScript 2 are (or were) all meant to be innovations and additions to the interface developers toolkit, allowing us to do exciting new and innovative things. Creating new types of web pages, allowing the user to interact in new and exciting ways. Hmm. Writing that makes me think of AJAX. AJAX was meant to be an innovation and an addition to the interface developers toolkit allowing us to do exciting new and innovative things. AJAX was meant to allow us to create new types of web pages, allowing the user to interact in new and exciting ways.

Why did it work with AJAX? Its because support was already in the users browser. When AJAX started to become popular, there were some older browsers in use almost as much as Firefox 2 is in use today. Well, those older browsers disappeared as users could not access the websites that used advanced AJAX techniques. The other very helpful factor for AJAX was that computers became very cheap and very powerful and so users were upgrading more easily and more frequently. Most users only change browser when they change computer.

I believe there are the following 3 main reasons that HTML 5 and CSS 3 are not in common use today and will not be for at least 5 years from now:

  1. The W3C
    A large slow moving organisation that seemingly cannot decide in which direction to lumber. There has been some progress over the last year, but they have absolutely set the pace. The gap between HTML 4 and HTML 5 being proper standards will be mirrored by the gap between users using browsers which implement those standards.

  2. The browser vendors
    More slow moving organisations. The era of co-operation never began and never will be. There seems to be more effort being made to improve the performance of existing browser features rather than in implementing anything new. This in itself is a positive, but it does not really move the game forwards. This is the vendors playing catch-up so the websites we already build can run in a more reasonable fashion.

    There appears to be so little real competition in this market that vendor specific features are becoming acceptable again within the web development community. As developers we just want something shiny and new to play with!

  3. The Users
    The only group that should really matter. Users have not been given any real incentive to change browsers or to support those vendors attempting to implement and push forwards new standards. Users will only shift their position on this in response to catastrophic security issues or a family member who knows better and has a convincing voice.

    Users still use older browsers such as IE 6 and Firefox 2 because there is nothing that the newer browsers offer which is compelling enough to make the change. Users are not technically savvy and nor should they have to be. Users only demand reliability, usable performance and security - even IE 6 can provide that.

Ultimately, there is no business case for building a website implementing new standards. Indeed, the opposite is true - it is better for businesses to ensure their websites work on the widest cross-section of browsers out there which means implementing old standards.

So is this all a cause for depression? Absolutely not. Do we need new standards? Not really! Wow, that was a controversial statement. I would like new and more appropriate standards, I would like those standards to be adhered to so I don't have to deal with cross browser issues. But, I am still doing really exciting and innovative work, I still find new bugs and issues with the browsers and I am yet to see a design or specification for a website which I could not build with today's existing technologies.

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