Specs Web

Joel Spolsky: Crap is good

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Joel Spolksy just spent several thousand words and accompanying diagrams saying one thing: we did things crappy in the past, and we should continue doing things crappy in the future because crap is easy.

Where do I start?

This upcoming battle will be presided over by Dean Hachamovitch, the Microsoft veteran currently running the team that’s going to bring you the next version of Internet Explorer, 8.0.

At a minimum Microsoft can go off and do its own thing in total isolation, and in the long run, Microsoft will end up being the loser. The more I work with SVG and the new CSS, the more I find that I can develop using the new technologies, and the page still works for IE but I don’t have to make it look the same for IE. As long as the page is clean, legible, and accessible via IE, it doesn’t have to look the same for IE as it does for the Big Three (Firefox, Safari, and Opera).

So I’d say that Hachamovitch is a player, but only to the extent that Microsoft wants to be a part of a larger community.

In practice, with the web, there’s a bit of a problem: no way to test a web page against the standard, because there’s no reference implementation that guarantees that if it works, all the browsers work. This just doesn’t exist.

Question: can you see this page?

There is no practical way to check if the web page you just coded conforms to the spec.

Question: can you see this page?

There are validators, but they won’t tell you what the page is supposed to look like, and having a “valid” page where all the text is overlapping and nothing lines up and you can’t see anything is not very useful. What people do is check their pages against one browser, maybe two, until it looks right. And if they’ve made a mistake that just happens to look OK in IE and Firefox, they’re not even going to know about it.

I’m trying to untangle this one mentally and failing. What Spolsky seems to be saying is that standards don’t matter, because people don’t test in all browsers, and standards somehow make lines not even up. Or something.

He can’t possibly be saying that standards break the web. Can he?

Actually, he can.

Standards are a great goal, of course, but before you become a standards fanatic you have to understand that due to the failings of human beings, standards are sometimes misinterpreted, sometimes confusing and even ambiguous.

The precise problem here is that you’re pretending that there’s one standard, but since nobody has a way to test against the standard, it’s not a real standard: it’s a platonic ideal and a set of misinterpretations, and therefore the standard is not serving the desired goal of reducing the test matrix in a MANY-MANY market.

DOCTYPE is a myth.

A mortal web designer who attaches a DOCTYPE tag to their web page saying, “this is standard HTML,” is committing an act of hubris. There is no way they know that. All they are really saying is that the page was meant to be standard HTML. All they really know is that they tested it with IE, Firefox, maybe Opera and Safari, and it seems to work. Or, they copied the DOCTYPE tag out of a book and don’t know what it means.

There’s at least four separate thoughts in these few seemingly related paragraphs. First: there really are no standards, because standards are a thing of the mind. Second, because standards are a thing of the mind, one can’t test pages against a standard. One such standards thing is DOCTYPE, which really doesn’t exist because no one knows what it does, and people just copy it, anyway. Therefore…

I must admit to getting lost at this point. Who’s on first?

And so if you’re a developer on the IE 8 team, your first inclination is going to be to do exactly what has always worked in these kinds of SEQUENCE-MANY markets. You’re going to do a little protocol negotiation, and continue to emulate the old behavior for every site that doesn’t explicitly tell you that they expect the new behavior, so that all existing web pages continue to work, and you’re only going to have the nice new behavior for sites that put a little flag on the page saying, “Yo! I grok IE 8! Give me all the new IE 8 Goodness Please!”

And indeed that was the first decision announced by the IE team on January 21st. The web browser would accommodate existing pages silently so that nobody had to change their web site by acting like the old, buggy IE7 that web developers hated.

A pragmatic engineer would have to come to the conclusion that the IE team’s first decision was right. But the young idealist “standards” people went nuclear.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been called a “young idealist”. I wonder how Sam Ruby likes being called a young idealist? I’m surprised Spolsky didn’t pat us all on the heads, offer us a cookie. But wait, it gets better…

Almost every web site I visited with IE8 is broken in some way. Websites that use a lot of JavaScript are generally completely dead. A lot of pages simply have visual problems: things in the wrong place, popup menus that pop under, mysterious scrollbars in the middle. Some sites have more subtle problems: they look ok but as you go further you find that critical form won’t submit or leads to a blank page.

Fancy that…this young idealist’s web sites both worked with IE8, right out of the box. In fact, the only problem I’ve had with IE8 is with Netflix and that’s because of the ActiveX controls and nothing to do with standards.

I think we’ll find that most web sites don’t break with IE8, or if they do, they’re just as likely break with Firefox 3b, and Opera 9.5b, and the latest WebKit. There’s a reason you have a long beta period for a browser–to give people time to make any necessary fixes in order to have the browser work with the page once the browser is released out of beta.

True, there are sites that will continue to break with IE8 once it’s released. If you want to find them, go to the web sites, and search on muscle cars. Better yet: “Unicorn rainbow pony”. Heck, even most of them will *probably work.

Some of those pages can’t be changed. They might be burned onto CD-ROMs. Some of them were created by people who are now dead. Most of them created by people who have no frigging idea what’s going on and why their web page, which they paid a designer to create 4 years ago, is now not working properly.

So the web has to stop because a web site has been burned on a CD, or the person who created the site is dead? Isn’t that equivalent to saying, “No, you can’t have blu-ray, because I still have VHS tapes”? Or maybe more in line with, “No, you can’t have that vaccine because there are people in the world who think the plague is caused by evil spirits, and we have to halt our practice of medicine until they catch up.”

You know, it is OK to let old pages break. There is nothing so valuable online today that we have to halt all further progress of the web because of the off chance a page won’t be viewable in a modern browser. If it were truly that valuable, it wouldn’t be that vulnerable.

Leaving aside vapid, sexist twaddles such as, Mmhmm. All you smug idealists are laughing at this newbie/idjit. The consumer is not an idiot. She’s your wife. So stop laughing (speaking of which, it doesn’t matter where the quote arises, Joel, only your use of it to prove a point), Spolsky’s whole pitch is basically a race for the bottom. Crap has happened in the past, and therefore we should continue supporting crap in the future. Not only support old crap, but encourage new crap because, frankly, people are too stupid to learn how to do things right. She’s your wife, indeed.

In response to Spolsky’s writing, Sam Ruby wrote, If people want web browsers that work with actual web sites, they still have three choices. Three good, solid choices, created by three organizations populated by people who don’t believe we have to be stuck with muscle cars, unicorns, rainbows, and ponies forever.

*Do scroll down the page and look at the comment annotating the page view counter.

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