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April 2010 - Posts

The standards that fail us and the intellectual bubble

There has been a great deal of noise in the techie community about standards, and a sudden and unexplainable hate for Flash. This noise isn't coming from consumers... the countless soccer moms, teens and your weird uncle Bob, it's coming from the people who build (or at least claim to build) the stuff those consumers consume. If you could survey the position of consumers on the topic, they'd likely tell you that they just want stuff on the Web to work.

The noise goes something like this: Web standards are the correct and right thing to use across the Intertubes, and anything not a part of those standards (Flash) is bad. Furthermore, the more recent noise is centered around the idea that HTML 5, along with Javascript, is the right thing to use. The arguments against Flash are, well, the truth is I haven't seen a good argument. I see anecdotal nonsense about high CPU usage and things I'd never think to check when I'm watching Piano Cat on YouTube, but these aren't arguments to me. Sure, I've seen it crash a browser a few times, but it's totally rare.

But let's go back to standards. Yes, standards have played an important role in establishing the ubiquity of the Web. The protocols themselves, TCP/IP and HTTP, have been critical. HTML, which has served us well for a very long time, established an incredible foundation. Javascript did an OK job, and thanks to clever programmers writing great frameworks like JQuery, is becoming more and more useful. CSS is awful (there, I said it, I feel SO much better), and I'll never understand why it's so disconnected and different from anything else. It doesn't help that it's so widely misinterpreted by different browsers. Still, there's no question that standards are a good thing, and they've been good for the Web, consumers and publishers alike.

HTML 4 has been with us for more than a decade. In Web years, that might as well be 80. HTML 5, contrary to popular belief, is not a standard, and likely won't be for many years to come. In fact, the Web hasn't really evolved at all in terms of its standards. The tools that generate the standard markup and script have, but at the end of the day, we're still living with standards that are more than ten years old. The "official" standards process has failed us.

The Web evolved anyway, and did not wait for standards bodies to decide what to do next. It evolved in part because Macromedia, then Adobe, kept evolving Flash. In the earlier days, it mostly just did obnoxious splash pages, but then it started doing animation, and then rich apps as they added form input. Eventually it found its killer app: video. Now more than 95% of browsers have Flash installed. Consumers are better for it.

But I'll do it one better... I'll go out on a limb and say that Flash is a standard. If it's that pervasive, I don't care what you tell me, it's a standard. Just because a company owns it doesn't mean that it's evil or not a standard. And hey, it pains me to say that as a developer, because I think the dev tools are the suck (more on that in a minute). But again, consumers don't care. They don't even pay for Flash. The bottom line is that if I put something Flash based on the Internet, it's likely that my audience will see it.

And what about the speed of standards owned by a company? Look no further than Silverlight. Silverlight 2 (which I consider the "real" start to the story) came out about a year and a half ago. Now version 4 is out, and it has come a very long way in its capabilities. If you believe Riastats.com, more than half of browsers have it now. It didn't have to wait for standards bodies and nerds drafting documents, it's out today. At this rate, Silverlight will be on version 6 or 7 by the time HTML 5 is a ratified standard.

Back to the noise, one of the things that has continually disappointed me about this profession is the number of people who get stuck in an intellectual bubble, color it with dogmatic principles, and completely ignore the actual marketplace where this stuff all has to live. We aren't machines; Binary thinking that forces us to choose between "open standards" and "proprietary lock-in" (the most loaded b.s. FUD term evar) isn't smart at all. The truth is that the <object> tag has allowed us to build incredible stuff on top of the old standards, and consumers have benefitted greatly. Consumer desire, capitalism, and yes, standards ratified by nerds who think about this stuff for years have all played a role in the broad adoption of the Interwebs.

We could all do without the noise. At the end of the day, I'm going to build stuff for the Web that's good for my users, and I'm not going to base my decisions on a techie bubble religion. Imagine what the brilliant minds behind the noise could do for the Web if they joined me in that pursuit.

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