Then and now in standards: What’s different

Update I am aware that Hard Rock is using Deep Zoom, based on Microsoft’s HD Photo technology. The equivalent open source version of the same functionality is JPEG 2000, which, hopefully, someday will have a wider implementation. My tiny test was not a challenge to Hard Rock, but to the statements made about open source technologies being incapable of smooth animations—not without causing the CPU to spike badly. My test was focused specifically on these two qualities. I would hope that people would grant me a few more hours if I were to attempt to re-create the Hard Rock, which is based on proprietary technologies, and took the team a month, I believe it was, to create.

I did want to address something else that Mr. Ellis wrote:

They seem pretty sophisticated right? In short AJAX is a kludge of various technologies that were never intended to work together in this manner. It can work, but AJAX development is a pain. It gets even more complicated when you start to mix in other aspects of the “free and open” Web like SVG or CSS. It is anything but a cohesive set of technologies.

The real weak spot is in the development tools for “free and open” technologies. There are no AJAX development environments that can compare to the tools available for Flash and Silverlight, and the latter has only been out for one year. It is so bad that people made a big deal over a framework to make AJAX development a little easier.

Actually, the technology behind Silverlight began several years ago. The underlying markup, XAML, was first released in 2003 (or sooner). Yes, while IE6 lay dormant, Microsoft was building Silverlight, except that the infrastructure was called Avalon and Chrome and probably a host of other names. In fact, you could say it took Microsoft close to seven years to create Silverlight. And if you think I was the first person to write about the similarity between XAML and SVG, on the contrary. Check out the following:

And one last clarification: I don’t care that Microsoft built Silverlight. I do care that the company spent time building this proprietary infrastructure while leaving the rest of us to deal with broken browsers and broken promises.


Luckily the article I wrote for NetscapeWorld in August 1997, was still preserved at the Wayback Machine. In the article, titled A Web Developer’s Guide to the new Cross-Browser Issues, I wrote:

Developers are more likely to have compatibility across vendor implementations of an application if one vendor dominates the market and their implementation becomes the de facto standard, rather than being derived from a specification released by a non-profit standards organization. The only exception to this is for standards that are machine-specific, such as the DVD format, and even then the implementation of one vendor probably acted as a seed to the standard. Microsoft has what is the dominant user interface operating system, Windows, with the Mac being a secondary standard. Based on this, you have a plethora of products compatible with one or the other or both. A GUI derived from a standards committee would never have this same impact.

This would seem to contradict what I wrote yesterday about the importance of open standards and the W3C. However, what’s different between then and now is the concept of symbiosis.

Twelve years ago, Netscape and IE were neck and neck when it came to quality and what each offered. As each browser version was released, the companies would implement their own innovations, and the world would either flock to the new browser release or run for the hills. The browser companies would then submit their innovations to the standards organizations, and based on the reactions of both users and developers, these organizations would either incorporate the innovation or not. Though the ride was bumpy at times, the innovation-standard-innovation cycle ensured a consistency across browsers (standards) without costing progress (innovation). There was a symbiotic relationship between the innovative and the standard in those early days, and the end result of the symbiosis was that best browser became the de facto browser, at least at the time, and both standards and innovation marched in tune.

The same cannot be said of today’s browser environment. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is still the most used browser for most sites today, but its prominence is not based on it being the best; it’s based on inertia. Microsoft includes IE6 as the default browser within its operating systems, and many individuals and companies just went with the default and stayed, stuck like bugs in amber. No one, not even Microsoft can say that IE6 the best browser today. However, even Microsoft would be hard-pressed to say that IE8 is the best browser if you measure its conformance to existing standards as a component of its overall worth.

The days when the best browser winning, “best” being measured based on both innovation and standards support, are gone; leaving behind not a race to the bottom, so much, but a disinterest, especially in corporate America, in rising to the top. This is not a healthy state to be in. This is actually a far worse state to be in then when I wrote that article for NetscapeWorld in 1997.

What Microsoft has done is broken faith with the standards community. It’s fractured that delicate symbioses between standards and innovations. It did so by implementing those standards it finds useful and ignoring everything else. The company is taking a gamble that people have become indifferent to standards enough that it can do an end run around the standards organizations, like the W3C, but still maintain top billing.

Microsoft didn’t stop with ignoring what we now consider to be “standard”. The company made sure that the symbiotic relationship between standards and innovation was irretrievably damaged with its release of Silverlight. Microsoft seemingly made a business decision that the competitive threat it faced was not coming from a browser or browser company. No, the threat Microsoft perceived was coming from Adobe. It needed a Flash clone, and it created one or is trying to create one, with Silverlight.

Silverlight isn’t just a Flash clone, though. It is a policy statement about standards. Silverlight is innovative, true, but it is an innovation that can never be shared as a standard because it is a destructive innovation. By using a XML-based vector graphics language that is not the same XML-based vector graphics language that forms the standard, SVG, Microsoft has ensured that the innovative elements incorporated into Silverlight can never be added back to SVG. More importantly, by not implementing SVG, the company has made a statement that it will never “share” its innovations with the standards community. Oh we may if we’re willing to accept the company’s licensing, use Silverlight, but it will never be a part of the community, it will always be Microsoft’s.

Make no mistake, there is nothing in SVG that would be counter to the innovations necessary to create Silverlight. Microsoft could have chosen a different path, to innovate on SVG with the risk that its innovations would be rejected by both the community and W3C. However, those aspects of SVG that are basic to both the standard and Microsoft’s implementation of Silverlight would at least be compatible across browsers. Now what we, who are promoting a standard vector-based graphics system in browsers, are left with, is a four-legged stool, with one leg missing.

To add salt to the wound, Microsoft also used its own version of a Canvas element in which to create its displays and animations, but it is not the same Canvas element implemented in the other browsers and currently being incorporated into HTML5. That’s two specifications that Microsoft has subsumed into its own proprietary functionality. Two specifications that, unless something drastic happens, will never be compatible across browsers.

Yesterday, Paul Ellis decided to educate all of us on how Silverlight is a superior product, and how it’s the W3C’s fault the web is going proprietary because the W3C is slow. The W3C, like any standards organization, is cautious, true, but the SVG specification has been out for years, and as far as I know, nothing has held Microsoft back from not only implementing SVG but innovating on SVG if the company so desired. As one person commented, why create new standards if the existing ones aren’t implemented?

Mr. Ellis also pointed out the superiority of the animation demonstrated in the Hard Rock Cafe’s Memorabilia page, implemented in Silverlight 2. Nothing like this, he proclaims, could be done with open standards.

Mr. Ellis is incorrect. True, JavaScript animation can be a bit jerky at times, and if not managed properly, can cause one’s CPU to spike. However, I think if he were to see the Hard Rock’s zooming animation separate from the other elements of the application, he might not find it to be as smooth as he thinks it is, or as friendly to the CPU. The perception of how good that application is is dependent on operating system, machine, graphics card and so on. I found that the Silverlight animation caused my Windows XP machine to spike when I opened the animation using Firefox; it barely worked with Opera. At the same time, my own (admittedly quickly coded and not performance tweaked) zooming example implemented with JavaScript did not cause any CPU spikes at all, even on my pre-Intel Mac, which can’t run a Silverlight 2 application. Of course, Mr. Ellis would say that my JavaScript animation isn’t as smooth and it is true that JavaScript-based animation can have jerky movements based on the timer and the action and so on; at the same time, if the animation was incorporated with other events, such as an end zoom artificial bounce, as well as sideways motion, we might find that the zooming action is more than acceptable. Additionally, Opera, Firefox, and Safari are always working to improve their JavaScript engines, not only for animations but for all processes.

However, if we never find a JS-based animation to be as “smooth” as an animation based on Silverlight, we can use SVG and SMIL, which is a declarative form of animation, to create the same zooming effect, at least for Opera and Safari, and eventually Firefox. In fact, if we were to look at the functionality to zoom in Silverlight, compared to the same in SVG, we would find some remarkable similarities. Enough so, that I believe that we could completely emulate Mr. Ellis’ Hard Rock Cafe application in SVG and have it perform the same as the Silverlight effect, or close enough to make differences difficult to perceive. Naturally, the Hard Rock effect wasn’t done in an hour, so Mr. Ellis will have to forgive me if my own example isn’t identical.

The real issue, though, isn’t that Adobe has Flash, and Microsoft has Silverlight, or that JavaScript can’t create World of Warcraft; there’s nothing wrong with having additional tools based on plug-in architectures, and more power to the companies that provide them. In fact, if Microsoft wanted to implement SVG as a plug-in architecture, I think most of us would have found this choice to be acceptable. Where the failure lies with Microsoft is that the company shattered the symbiosis that existed between standards and innovation, and created a schism between the community that values standards, and the community that values innovation. It has generated a gap between people like myself and Mr. Ellis and forced each of us to choose “sides” at a time when we should have a common goal—a better browser, a better web experience. Even if someone were to create an SVG wrapper using Silverlight, the fracture between standards and innovation will only be bandaged, not healed. It’s not the standards implementation we’re missing; it’s the missing commitment to standards that is causing the harm.

Microsoft has forgotten that nothing stands alone on the web. The only way the company will remember this important lesson is for us to succeed in those areas where the company has tried to generate failure; for all of us to continue to celebrate standards, which form a stable platform for change, in addition to innovation, which ensures that standards remain a living work.

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