Tyranny of Microsoft

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

July 20th, 2000, the Web Standards Project issued an ultimatum to Netscape/Mozilla, saying, in part:

Why are you taking forever to deliver a usable browser? And why, if you are a company that believes in web standards, do you keep Navigator 4 on the market?

If you genuinely realized it would take two years to replace Netscape 4, we wish you would have told us. No market, let alone the Internet, can stand still that long. We would have told you as much.

Continuing to periodically “upgrade” your old browser while failing to address its basic flaws has made it appear that you still consider Navigator 4 viable. It is not. You obviously know that, or you would not be rebuilding from scratch. But keeping your 4.0 browser on the market has forced developers to continue writing bad code in order to support it. Thus, while you tantalize us with the promise of Mozilla and standards, you compel us to ignore standards and write junk code in order keep our sites accessible to the dwindling Netscape 4.0 user base. It’s a lose-lose proposition, on our end and yours.

For the good of the web, it is time to withdraw Navigator 4 from the market, whether Netscape 6 is ready or not. Beyond that, if you hope to remain a player, and if you expect standards advocates to keep cheering you on, you must ship Netscape 6 before its market evaporates – along with the dream of a web based on open standards.

If you succeed now, you will regain some of the trust and market share you have lost. And instead of arguing with your competitors, standards advocates will be able to sit back and watch them try to catch up with your support for XML and the DOM.

If you fail now, the web will essentially belong to a single company. And for once, nobody will be able to blame them for “competing unfairly.” So please, for your own good, and the good of the web, deliver on your promises while Netscape 6 still has the chance to make a difference.

Much of the criticism was based on the fact that Netscape, soon to become Mozilla, was undergoing a massive infrastructure change–a change that eventually led to the Mozilla project we know today, and to products like Firefox, and extensions such as Firebug, Web Developer Toolkit, and so on. The WaSP believed at the time that Netscape should focus on delivering a standards compliant browser, putting away the foolishness of XUL until some later time.

In response to a posting at Mozillazine, I wrote a comment about ‘tyranny of the standards’, which eventually led to a full article out at O’Reilly under the same title.

My oh my wasn’t I ripped a new one by members of the WaSP and others. Among those who disagreed with me was Jeffrey Zeldman, who wrote in comments:

The author misses two crucial points, I think:

1. The WaSP has never criticized companies for innovating. If Netscape had not innovated JavaScript, the web would be far poorer – and we would not have the ECMAScript standard today. All the WaSP has asked, repeatedly and clearly, is that browser makers not innovate *at the expense of existing standards.* In other words, that they devote resources toward improving their support for baseline technologies such as CSS-1, HTML 4, XML, ECMAScript and the DOM, *BEFORE* creating new, possibly competing technologies.

For example, we have no problem with IE’s table data “bordercolor” attribute, because IE also provides a standard means of accomplishing the same thing via the standard CSS border property, which they’ve supported well since IE4. Designers and developers can choose to design only for IE if they wish (using IE’s proprietary HTML extension), but most will choose to use the standards IE supports. As long as IE supports those common standards, let them innovate all they like. Similarly, we have not criticized XUL because, as Christian Riege points out, XUL does not stand in the way of Mozilla or Netscape 6’s support for DOM1, CSS, and HTML.

As Bill Pena wrote, ” Before adding a blink tag or ActiveX, CSS-positioning should have been implemented. That’s the real problem.” Historically speaking, blink was unleashed on the world before the CSS-1 recommendation was finished, but Bill’s overall point is exactly what we’re talking about.

Browser makers seem to understand this distinction, which we’ve been raising for nearly three years. It is in our mission statement, and we’ve said it time and again in press statements and interviews. Somehow the author of the article missed it. Most web developers and designers have *not* missed this point, and it is the power of their numbers as much as anything else that has enabled WaSP to influence browser makers in the direction of compliance with these baseline standards.

2. The author paints a portrait of browser companies being “forced” to adapt W3C recommendations by an angry lynch mob. This picture, while it adds a certain dramatic weight to the author’s arguments, ignores the reality of the situation.

*Browser makers themselves are largely responsible for creating these technologies.* When Netscape and Microsoft sat down with the W3C and, along with invited experts, came up with recommendations like CSS-1 … and when they then agreed to support these baseline technologies they’d just helped to create … it seemed logical to us that these companies would work to implement the things they’ve mutually invented and agreed to support.

Today, they mainly do exactly that, and it surely has not impeded their ability to innovate. But in 1998, browser makers were driven by market forces to focus on their points of difference, even as these applied to common and much-needed technologies like CSS, HTML and JavaScript. No organized group was around to remind these companies to fulfill the promises they’d made, giving developers and web users a reliable baseline of sophisticated technologies that would enable the web to move forward. In the absence of any unified voice calling out for these obviously-needed technologies, WaSP was born.

We are not a lynch mob; we’re a small, non-profit, volunteer group using the only tool at our disposal — the power of public opinion — to persuade browser makers to fulfill promises they made as long ago as 1996 (in the case of CSS-1). By and large, browser makers have been working to fulfill those promises since they were made aware that their customer base actually cared about and needed these baseline technologies. The WaSP is not the Politburo or the U.S. Congress. Our goal is not to enhance our own power (of which we have none). Our goal is to wither away like the Communist State was supposed to, as soon as browser makers have finished the job of supporting baseline standards, and web developers are actually using these standards in the sites they build.

Cut forward seven years, and Zeldman writes, in response to the planned rollout of the IE8 meta tag:

We knew when we published this issue of A List Apart that it would light a match to the gaseous underbelly of standards-based web design, but we thought more than a handful of readers would respect the parties involved enough to consider the proposal on its merits. Alas, the ingrained dislike of Microsoft is too strong, and the desire to see every site built with web standards is too ardently felt, for the proposal to get a fair viewing.

Today too many sites aren’t semantic, don’t validate, and aren’t designed to specs of the W3C. Idealists think we can change this by “forcing” ignorant developers to get wisdom about web standards. Idealists hope, if sites suddenly display poorly in IE, the developers will want to know why, and will embark on a magical journey of web standards learning

I commend Aaron Gustafson for his courage and intelligence and thank him and his small band of colleagues, and the engineers they worked with at Microsoft, for offering a way forward that keeps web standards front and center in all future versions of IE.

People change over seven years time. I know I’ve changed, and have become somewhat fanatical about standards. What changed for me between then and now was a thing called IE6, which lasted forever, and has still not properly been retired by Microsoft.

I’m not the only person to change in that time. Where is the man, where is the Zeldman who argued so passionately for standards long ago? Who used to encourage people to contact web designers and tell them to update their sites to meet standards? Who joined with others in condemning Netscape/Mozilla for working on a new infrastructure, rather than pushing a browser out the door that met standards?

Engulfed by the Blue Monster, evidently.

Today, Molly Holzschlag wrote a post, Me, IE8, and Microsoft Versioning where she bemoans the lack of transparency forced on to her, the WaSP team members, and others working with Microsoft.

Open standards must emerge from public, open, bare discussion. Microsoft clearly does not agree with this. It goes against its capitalist cover-up mentality, even when Bill Gates himself has quite adamantly stated that there should be no secrecy around IE8. In fact, he was the one who let the name slip. The fucking name, people! This shows you how ludicrous the lack of communication had become: Gates himself didn’t even know we weren’t allowed to say “IE8.”

This covert behavior is a profound conflict for me as I’m sure readers will at least agree that I’m pretty darned overt by default. But I knew it going in, I just kept and am still keeping my hopes high because that is also my default.

Sometimes the solution is to step back and re-evaluate. Sometimes the solution is to walk away. I haven’t firmed up my personal decisions on that just yet. Maybe it’s time to go back to Old School WaSP-style stinging of MS, but that definitely is not my default.

Can’t we all just get along? No, really. During my time at WaSP, the door was open to a kinder, gentler way. More fool me? So be it. I’m not giving up the greater goal, which is keeping the Web open, free, naked, bare-assed to the world.

To Molly’s post, I wrote a still-moderated comment:

There was another option for you and Aaron and the other people who found Microsoft’s silence so disturbing: you could have quit.

You could have pulled out of the discussions in no uncertain terms and let them know they were making mistakes. You could have used the reasons for your leaving to demonstrate to Microsoft the strength of your convictions.

Bill Gates is first and foremost a poker player. This one significant aspect of his personality has influenced Microsoft from the very beginning. How does the song go? “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Members of WaSP should never have allowed themselves to be pulled into such a NDA’d discussion.

Two things wrong about all of this.

First, the fact that we, who strive to create standards compliant pages, are the ones who have to change our pages in order to them work with IE8 is, frankly, ludicrous. Leaving aside all of the issues brought up by other people, the idea that the way forward is to have the sites created by people who do things right be the ones to break, rather than the sites created by people who do things wrong, because we’re supposedly the better informed, is ridiculous. It sets a precedent for mediocrity. It signals to agents such as browser makers that they no longer have to worry about those little side trips into proprietary technologies while standards support languishes because, you know, the web will be waiting here for them whenever they decide to remember we exist.

More importantly, I’m seeing too many people who are supporting this tag, doing so because they believe if Microsoft receives complaints from people that their sites are breaking, the company will fire their standards staff and go its own way and all of standards development will be lost, forever.

I don’t know what they call this in Zeldmanland, but where I come from it’s called extortion and blackmail. It is equivalent to saying Microsoft owns the web. Well, we all know that’s not true–Google owns the web.

Secondly, this new tag came about because of closed door meetings under NDA with Microsoft, and involving members of the WaSP, and others who we have come to respect in this industry, such as Molly, PPK, Zeldman, and Eric Meyer. People who have made their name, and their careers, based on support for standards. People who are now finding out that respect in the past does not translate into blind obedience in the future.