We can’t afford another browser war

It was with a sense of foreboding that I read the posts that swam past on Planet Intertwingly today. First came Mozilla’s Brendan Eich’s chastisement of Microsoft’s Chris Wilson, followed in a short while by commentary by Sam Ruby, where he wrote:

It is interesting how the don’t-break-the-web meme means different things to different organizations: Mozilla, Microsoft.

I’m not a language designer. My only stipulation with a new scripting language is that whatever constructs are added to ECMAScript4 need to be backward compatible. We can’t afford to re-write a couple of billion web pages because the ECMAScript group got clever. From what I’ve read in the past and in these new writings, Eich concurs, as do several other members of the team.

In regards to the new items added to the language: I share other concerns that ECMAScript–no let’s call it JavaScript because that’s how it’s known in the world–may become bloated and over large. I can understand about making it into a ‘real’ language, but I’m less concerned with posterity than I am getting a job done, quickly and efficiently. In other words: I don’t have any ego involved with the fact that I work with a programming language many folks consider somehow less worthy. If the extensions make a better language enabling me to do a better job, that’s great. Otherwise, leave the esoteric for ACM papers.

The future perfect ECMAScript is currently not my concern. My concern on this interchange between Mozilla’s Eich and Microsoft’s Wilson is that we’re seeing the seeds being planted for another round of browser wars, similar to what we had a decade ago. However, today’s web isn’t like the web of a decade ago, because today’s web pages are much too complex to attempt to cover every nuance and difference in implementation with if statements and conditional tests. It was especially disquieting to read comments to the effect that, it’s OK if the companies don’t agree: we can use Flash. Flash is not an alternative to open standards. We don’t need any more Flash dependency as a way of ‘soothing over’ corporate intransigence. Neither do we need more SVG plug-ins or Google cross-browser libraries. Workarounds are no longer acceptable.

Any company is going to want to implement a version of any specification that favors what they currently have, as much as possible. Of course, this is understandable. Accept the fact that this is understandable. What keeps this behavior in line is there is enough push from other forces that everyone eventually has to compromise, and no one is a clear winner. When no organization is a clear winner, this typically means that everyone, eventually, ends up being a winner.

There’s no denying that Internet Explorer continues to be a problem. I found it unacceptable that Microsoft would put in the time to create its own 2D graphics system with Silverlight, when one already exists with both SVG and Canvas (the Canvas object, not markup element). There was absolutely no good reason for this, and no amount of plushy blue monster or outreach effort is going to hide the fact that Microsoft basically did its own selfish thing with Silverlight.

There is no denying, however, that Microsoft’s browser continues to dominate (though every year, it dominates less). There is also no denying that Eich has considerable ego invested in ECMAScript–to the point where I have to wonder if this may make him overly aggressive, leading to confrontations that could injure the likelihood of pulling together a new version of JavaScript all browser makers are willing to endorse. We need a consistent platform: no matter how good the language, if a sizable number of people are using a browser that doesn’t implement it, the language is screwed, the browsers are screwed, we’re screwed.

“So I’ll expect to see no more of these lies spread by you.” No matter how angry you get, or frustrated, or peeved, if you want to work in an open standards group, particularly if you want to lead an open standards effect, you can’t write statements like this! Period. End of story. Along with the authority of leadership comes responsibility, and such statements are irresponsible. Where is Mitchell Baker? Time for her to step in and exert a calming influence. At a minimum, act as referee.

The same could be said for the Microsoft representation. No matter how subtly worded, we’re picking up our marbles and going home, neener, neener is not ‘working together as a team’; nor is it considering the true best interests of the web, in general, and of those loyal to Microsoft products, specifically.

Sam mentions that this issue is one based on culture. Frankly, from these exchanges, it seems more like a pissing contest to me.


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