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May 20, 2004

Plus ca change

In a recent post I reminisced about the early days of CSS, and a few of the people I recall as influential and important in the development of a standards based web.

But usually I am the kind of person who looks to the future. In the last few months Microsoft made a couple of very significant announcements with possibly quite negative implications for the future of a standards based web. Which has me thinking about that future, and wondering whether there even is such future.

Since the release of Netscape and Internet Explorer 4, there has been a steady movement toward the idea of standards based web development. In some respects the innovation both in the underlying standards and their implementation has been quite extraordinary. But as the kids in the back seat are always asking "Are we there yet"?
In a sense, there is no "there". Perhaps plateaus or way stations along the way, but no final destination. Right now it may seem like we are at one of those way stations. A reasonably large subset of CSS2 (soon to become CSS2.1) is quite well supported by most browsers.
CSS and xhtml support are markedly improved since the early parts of this decade.

But is it a way station, or are we just stalled?

Microsoft has in the last few months both discontinued IE for the Macintosh altogether, and let it be known there will be no new IE for today's generation of Windows based computers. The next iteration of IE will be solely for "longhorn" based systems (longhorn being the code name for the successor to Windows XP). Any such systems are unlikely before 2006, leaving a several year hiatus between major upgrades for IE, the single most pervasive web platform by a long way. And at present the platform with the most web standards "issues".

Which makes wonder - will we see standards based innovation in future?

Who cares about standards?

When it comes to commercial competition, standards are the friend of those without market dominance. The dominant player sets the "industry standard", as companies who dominate their niche tend to describe their software.

I believe that during the second half of the 1990s, during the most innovative time of the development CSS, commercial considerations did not play a significant part either in the development of CSS or in its implementation in browsers. CSS flew below the radar at Microsoft and Netscape/AOL/Time Warner. That won't happen again.

So what might the future hold? Let's turn the browsers for a moment. What happens here will determine what happens with CSS and standards more generally.

Where are we now?

Internet Explorer 6

When Microsoft did not dominate the browser market, open standards leveled the paying field for them. But now with IE dominant, will Microsoft be so supportive of standards?

Internet Explorer 6 is for Windows only. It supports much of CSS 2.1 though support for attribute based selectors, and more sophisticated selectors in general, such as the child selector is limited. It has some serious issues with the box model and positioning which cause many developers considerable frustration.
As noted before, IE 6 is the last version of IE which will be available until probably mid 2006, perhaps later, and the next version will never work on today's computers, not even on XP.

It's the end of the road for IE as we know it.

So, if things stay as they are, with Internet Explorer the benchmark, then say goodbye to CSS innovation for a long long time.

There are number of things which may affect this. First, CSS's design to allow forward compatibility means the user experience for more advanced browsers can be enhanced without compromising the experience of IE users. And there is even a simple way of hiding things from IE, using the child selector, which no version of IE on windows supports.

If not IE, who will innovate?

Opera? Mozilla? Anyone?

The more important question is who will innovate on the web? Not Microsoft, not at least until 2006 or whenever "longhorn" is released, with its new browser, possibly no longer called Internet Explorer.
Maybe then we'll see renewed CSS innovation from Microsoft, as they will want a "driver" for people to upgrade to their new OS. Afterall, the web is a big reason why people buy and use computers, especially away from the office, so surely Microsoft will want to give users a compelling reason to upgrade their web experience. Whether web standards support is the way, we'll have to wait and see. I have my reservations about that.

Will Opera be the innovators then? While technically Opera are doubtlessly innovators, will users adopt Opera? Perhaps in the embedded market where Opera may well shine, but I doubt it on the desktop.

How about Mozilla/Firefox? It's open source, it has a relationship with AOL, meaning that should AOL/TW wish, it could be installed on every AOL user's desktop in a matter of months, though sadly that seems increasingly less likely. That would give it some clout. But will it, even with continual improvement, on top of what is already a fine platform, be sufficiently compelling to have Windows users replace IE 6 as their browser of choice? Some certainly, but enough to worry Microsoft?

People as shrewd as Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates at Microsoft don't think so. Otherwise they would not have said to the world, "if you want browser innovation on Windows don't look at us". These guys have given the rest of the world a 3-4 year window in which to have the playing field all to themselves. Sure they might have made a huge strategic mistake, but they clearly aren't too worried about it happening.

As a brief aside, if I were Google (which I am sadly not, because they are at least 11 orders of magnitude smarter than me), who are rumored to be working on client side technologies for managing information, I'd put a lot of energy into Mozilla, and release a Google branded browser, as suggested by Anil Dash among others.

A better mousetrap

Microsoft has also abandoned IE for the Mac. Stats are hard to come by, but in the year or so since this announcement, Safari appears to have come to dominate the Mac OS X browser market.
So it's not impossible to supplant an incumbent, but you need something more than simply "a better mousetrap".
Mac users look to Apple first. They upgrade more, there is still something of the enthusiast in them. And coupled with that, Safari is more than a little better. It is markedly better.
But being even a lot better alone did not drive people to Safari.

Is that all there is?

So that's that then? Nothing new except for non Microsoft users until 2006 or later? And then what? Total dominance by one browser, so maybe nothing new even then? Certainly nothing which they don't want you to have. Sure there will be innovation outside the framework provided by the W3C, but would you go to the trouble of implementing all the complex stuff like multi-column layout, text shadow (which Safari does by the way), and all the other CSS 3 goodies that it is far from trivial to do, when you have a near monopoly?

Or would you set your own agenda?

I thought so.

Oh well, that was nice while it lasted.

RIP the Standards Based Web
born circa 1995
died circa 2005
She left us so young, with so much promise

The once and future king?

But I see some small hope. And it is 1984 all over again. Plus ça change.

What a browser would need to ignite the imagination, to get people downloading and upgrading is something new, something unique. Not just a tabbed interface, or faster rendering, or lots of CSS stuff that appeals to developers but users wouldn't care less about.

Have you used Safari for Windows?
Do you have iTunes on their Windows machine

Literally millions of people use a big chunk of Safari on Windows. It's the browser built into iTunes. It works today.
So arguably the quickest, most standards compliant browser around, which by the way is based on the open source KHTML rendering engine, is available right now on Windows. And to use iTunes, you need to use it.
Apple contributes to the KHTML project, so many of its innovations will find their way into that browser. On the Mac, Windows and UNIX variants.

Apple, along with KHTML, Opera and Mozilla, may have 2 or 3 years to innovate on the browser front, without any competition from Microsoft.
And Apple might just have found the killer app to drive people to adopt a new, lightweight, fast, open source based, standards compliant multi platform browser - mainstream commercial online music.

We can only hope to see Safari for Windows, and maybe other platforms. And with it thriving browser innovation based on the open standards of the World Wide Web.
And if that happened, you can be sure Microsoft would get in on th act as well, as they did when IE was not the colossus it has become.

plus ça reste la même chose

May 20, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Re: the Google-branded browser, see http://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=226572 (particularly the last comment).

Posted by: Jeff Walden | May 20, 2004 11:59:18 AM

I remember back when Netscape 3 was the best browser, even ordinary people knew it was better for using the Internet. It was one of the first things people asked me to install on their new computers, even though IE was pre-installed.

I think most people, even regular folks, would use Firefox if they knew how much better it was. Boy are my parents happy not to look at three hijack-ware search bars, custom start pages, porn pop-ups, and all the other crap that comes along with IE!

The trick is getting the word out, and unless word-of-mouth reaches a tipping point, only a few companies have enough influence to change people's browsing habits. One, as you mentioned, is AOL. Another is Google. Google has a vested interest in keeping the Web accessible and easy to use, and that means promoting web standards.

I was curious, so I did a simple search for "web browser" at Google. The top 5 results, in order, were: Mozilla website, Firefox website, Opera website, Opera download page, Apple's Safari page. I wonder how much of that is Google's pagerank system, and how much is Google encouragement of standards-compliant browsers?

Paul

Posted by: Paul D | May 21, 2004 3:30:48 AM

Concidering that would be the most popular "other" browsers by order of use, hardly surprising.

Moz versions (inc Firefox) make up about 8% of traffic atm, Opera about 4% which is the same as the whole mac share of the net, reguardless of browser.

No-one needs to search for IE, its right there.

Also, if this were a few years ago, you could almost go back to the old "this site looks best in" buttons.. because well, if you are codingi nthe cool stuff, they may as well SEE it.

Posted by: darkcryst | May 22, 2004 10:29:12 AM

iTunes doesn't use the Safari/KHTML rendering engine. The store server spits out XML in a custom format (which bears little resemblance to XHTML), as described here:

http://www.tnl.net/blog/entry/Apple,_XML,_and_the_Music_Store

iTunes then renders this using its own display engine.

Posted by: Mihai Parparita | May 23, 2004 1:34:25 AM

You underestimate Microsoft's hold over the average user's concept of the OS/browser/internet continuum. Anti-trust settlements aside, the average Windows users thinks Internet Explorer IS the internet. The prospects of such a user voluntarily installing an alternate browser are pretty slim so it will have be required by some new service available via the internet.

Google is the last chance for a standards-based internet. Mozilla has no strategy other than satisfying the Slashdot/developer crowd, ie. completely irrelevant.

Posted by: Garrry Heaton | May 23, 2004 1:38:59 AM

I actually didn't think that Apple used KHTML on windows for the iTMS. I thought that it was a proprietary XML parser. I could be wrong, but that's what I've heard from most Mac enthusiasts.

Posted by: Justin August | May 23, 2004 1:39:22 AM

you're on crack. people don't want to buy music online, and they don't want to install itunes just to have a browser.

Posted by: lysol | May 23, 2004 1:39:51 AM

Time for everyone to use Mozilla, then?

Posted by: EntirelyUnpredictable | May 23, 2004 1:49:17 AM

Whatever the technology and how makes it, the power lies into the framework. Who build the best framework will drain many developers.

What Mozilla as a platform is lacking is a professional IDE or RAD to build standalone apps or web clients. In a nutshell, Mozilla has to give today what will be available tomorrow in Windows (in 2006 or 2007).


Another thought. Mozilla is great for the user interface but I personally would like to use it while programming in the language that I know best: Java. What I love about Java is that there is tons of open source code everywhere for almost everything and that there are great IDE that assists you in writing good code (ie: Refactoring, code completion, introspection, javadoc right their where you type, error checking,...).

Miscrosoft makes reasonably great IDE and that's one important reasons of it success: they care about the developer to lock them in better ;-)

Posted by: urddd | May 23, 2004 1:58:45 AM

Hmm.. hate to be this guy.. but.. my mom and dad do not care if their browser is standards compliant.

Back in the day.. only smart people were online... college students and stuff.. but now.. my friend's little sister and brother have their own computer and they are online. I don't think they care if their browser is standards compliant either...

it's like "buy computer... get web and email, download music... maybe porn too" this is the mentality...

and they do not care how they get there... if it wasn't for cable modem and dsl.. most people would think "AOL = the Internet"

Posted by: Gelf The Elf | May 23, 2004 2:01:44 AM

Thats the best thing about standards, there are so many of them!

Browsers are dumb. Repeat it again!

Browsers are commodities like computers. they are plentiful and no one cares how their pages look. People only want pages that load fast.

You have idiots like Jakob Nielsen of useit.com that think the web is some perfect world. Quess again, its not. Get over it.

You can test web pages for every known browser in the world but there are too many monitor sizes, resolutions and different OSes. If it looks good in the AOL browser, it will look good anywhere.

Microsoft cares about Microsoft and no one else. thats why they have inferior products. If people start not using their products, then maybe things will be different.

Web standards are recommendations and not the law.

Its a melting pot out there and some has to stir it up!


-BaddSectorr

http://www.geocities.com/baddsectorr


Posted by: BaddSectorr | May 23, 2004 2:04:42 AM


Users do not care about standards directly, but they do indirectly by way of useability, compatibility, etc. The same applies to products in the rest of society, whether electronic or not. Users hardly know about what GSM means, but they care that handsets are compatible across networks, and that text and voice calls go through with acceptable levels of quality.

I don't see what the question being posed here is?

There's not much more browser innovation to do per se, the innovation is to come from the way content is organised and related on the web. It seems that the browsers and the applicable standards are there - the content model needs to develop further.

For example, the way weblogs and RSS and P2P are being used.

Posted by: m | May 23, 2004 2:15:25 AM

This is from left field, but what about innovation from software other than web browsers? Here's a proposal to promote XHTML & CSS as the standard format for word processing: http://muux.com/wp/

Posted by: Tom Riddins | May 23, 2004 2:22:55 AM

Gelf just mentioned that people don't care about standards - and i agree....that's the wrong sales pitch...

turn around and ask anyone who's been online for a few months or longer if they like pop-up window adds or spyware-based toolbars that install automatically and don't register a way to uninstall...they'll answer by the droves...pitching firefox/moz because it's standards-based is idiotic...pitching it as getting more work done, faster, with less interruption...that could work...every person that i've set up with firefox has loved it...b/c of it's standards - they get the best online experience...

and most intelligent people will respond to that...tell them that IE is keeping them from enjoying the internet to its fullest (which in essence it does - lack of transparent PNG comes to mind), and they will respond...

i also like the idea of fighting fire with fire...a lot of people still remember the "best viewed with..." disclaimers on sites and firefox now has an 88x31 pixel banner that looks sharp...i personally have text in my site footer stating that "This site looks best with any browser other than Internet Explorer"...regardless of whether people actually even know what a browser is, every new system that i build has firefox installed as the default browser...get system builders on board and the tide could turn...

had a friend (who's a big microsoftie), agree with me that IE stopped being an innovative product at version 5.x...he also mentioned that the best thing that could happen to the web would be if ffox/moz browser usage pushed up to 20%...ms would have to notice that...

frankyl - i couldn't agree more...

Posted by: bliSSter | May 23, 2004 2:27:34 AM

I don't know what all the hub-bub is all about chubs....I've gotta say for starters that there are other browsers out there besides, firefox/moz/opera....a little known browser, w/ lots of fun features is slimbrowser. Small, no spyware/ads/bs (like others of course), built in pop-up killer, built in filters for ads, etc, every system I build has Slimbrowser on it, and even my uncle (a set in his ways man of late 30's) switched from Internet Exploder to Slimbrowser. But that's beside the point, we are all getting off topic here, I agree, there is no such thing anymore as "wow-ing the people" the average computer user in just the past 5-6 years has gone from 17-25 to 55-85...Why? Because grandma and grandpa wanna see the grandbabies...They want nothing but to be able to get "onto my aol" or "download this cd into my computer to listen to it" or some other lame terminology that makes no sense to the average person because it's worded totally incorrectly. I have nothing against the older age people getting pc's and using them, but the point of the matter is they could careless WHO or HOW they get online, hell they could even careless about all the excess BS that's included with it. Why? Because all they want it for is the pictures or their "Pogo" games, or what-not. Point is, innovation is out, it's not the 80's anymore people.

Posted by: AuthorPa | May 23, 2004 2:48:47 AM

Hi I'm a 12 year old who landed here from the slashdot story. I think everybody should use whatever Microsoft tells them too because Microsoft invented the internet for windows 95. I think that we should let Microsoft patent the web and email because they invented email but called it hotmail. I think that patents are really good for innovation and this is where the future of web standards lies.

Posted by: BillJr | May 23, 2004 3:01:23 AM

Hi I'm a 12 year old who landed here from the slashdot story. I think everybody should use whatever Microsoft tells them too because Microsoft invented the internet for windows 95. I think that we should let Microsoft patent the web and email because they invented email but called it hotmail. I think that patents are really good for innovation and this is where the future of web standards lies.

Posted by: BillJr | May 23, 2004 3:02:23 AM

well according to the w3schools.com browser stats, Mozilla currently holds 10% of the webs users. With a large push for Linux on the desktop and with Microsoft failing to innovate in IE for the next three years, this could bring this stat up to 35-45% in the next three years.

Microsofts grasp is still tenuous.Why? Well I happen to work for a Microsoft partner and do their web development. And the first thing I started getting calls on is that the site was showing up funky in Mozilla. Normally I'm totally on top of this but the caught it fairly fast.

Later in the month, I checked the usage stats (about 95% of which is from Microsoft itself). Sure enough, I found that 5% of people surfing in from Microsoft were using Mozilla. Keep in mind this is only 1 in 20 people but it shows that it has permeated even the most rabid 'dog food eating' software development company in the world. Those stats are still pretty much the same to this day with slight increases.

Much like Linux, Mozilla's community needs to start rallying. We need Mozilla installation parties, we need to put Mozilla bars and banners on our blogs, we need to make a huge push to effect this change. That's what open source is all about. It's the community that supports and pushes the product.

If we want change, we must actively seek it.

Posted by: Xeno | May 23, 2004 3:11:35 AM

Mozilla and the other alternative browsers need to add an option in their installer to remove shortcuts from windows users desktops, so they will not use IE out of habit, I know I had that problem the first time i tried mozilla, and actually reverted back to IE for some time before trying Moz again.

Posted by: temm | May 23, 2004 3:56:29 AM

My personal take on all this is that the awareness issue is clearly key to many things. If we've got to have "Mozilla install parties" then it isn't going to work outside the US quite so well.

I also agree that standards compliance isn't really going to sell much. The systems I build have Netscape and IE installed - the techies use NS (or install something else) and the sales types use IE. Clearly, the non-techies of the world need to be convinced that tabbed browsing is good for them. It might take a bit more than that though ;-)

I suspect that Longhorn will not include IE per-se because it'll be very heavily integrated into the OS. I'm imagining an extension of 'active desktop' that means that web browsing, 'windows explorer' and your office suite are all intermingled. Hence, no need for any other browser (or OS for that matter). You can bet that other browsers won't even run on Longhorn until another round of daft law suits take place.

I like the idea of the Google Browser. Possibly a half-way house might be to produce the Google Tool Bar for NS/Mozilla et al (okay, they don't need the popup blocker ;-) After that, rebadging it as Google would be pretty simple. Sidebar search results (etc) make such a browser look really 'Google'. Hell, someone could start a browser distro themselves to do that, with or without Google's backing. Same story for AOL, if suitable politcial will could be established (but there you'd be fighting against loggying from MS).

I'd say more people need to use CSS et al. My site uses it, but I quickly realised I don't have enough life left in me to try and get it looking good in IE as well as all the others (so I have a "sorry, this doesn't look so good because you're using IE' sign). A few more sites like that, and more people will become aware of the alternatives. It's unlikely you'd convince too many commercial sites to do this though.

Mozilla - tell all your friends about it.

Posted by: Coofer Cat | May 23, 2004 4:02:28 AM

What I don't understand is why people at Mozilla and Opera aren't pushing the big PC companies to install Moz/Firefox and/or Opera, at least as an alternative to IE.

Posted by: Jim | May 23, 2004 4:49:17 AM

What I don't understand is why people at Mozilla and Opera aren't pushing the big PC companies to install Moz/Firefox and/or Opera, at least as an alternative to IE.

Posted by: Jim | May 23, 2004 4:50:30 AM

I think the bigger picture to consider here is that from the vast majority of users' perspectives, there is nothing wrong with thier current browser. Who then wants more CSS updates and upgrades and innovation? Web developers. All web developers? Nope, just a few! Allow me to elaborate.
As owner of a small web development firm, I was personally overjoyed when I heard that IE would not change at all for 2 or 3 years. I have been chasing down browser bugs and display weirdness for nearly a decade, and the fact that the landscape is actually going to be stable for a little while is possibly the best news I have heard since I got in to web development.
Also, page formatting using current browsers is good enough. Blasphemy you say? Not that cross browser issues still don't give us fits on a nearly daily basis, but that the people paying us money care a great deal more about the content than they do the presentation layer, at least in most cases. This is not to say that design is irrelevant, far from it. In fact, in my experience a sexy design wins the bid over high functionality almmost every time. Even so, I still have to say that the display capabilities of browsers, though far from ideal from a developers perspective, are good enough to do what needs to be done. It is for these reasons that I personally don't really *want* to see any new innovation in CSS. I have enough to deal with every day. Let me focus on content management systems, workflow and those kind of things more and be able to spend less time chasing after browser issues!

Posted by: Mark Gregory | May 23, 2004 5:03:52 AM

Being a student of the computer industry, especially after watching " Pirates of Silicon Valley", I would love to see Apple write a version of Safari to run on Windows. I own several PCs and Macs as I run my own service business and have to stay current on most everything out there. My main workhorse and system of choice is my G4 tower maxed out running OSX 10.3.3 and Safari. Every once in a while I'll fire up IE to render a stubborn Web page and I am amazed how far this superior browser has come. The window of opportunity is open. I wish Apple would take advantage of it. Too long Windows and the Internet have been considered one in the same.

Posted by: macaroo | May 23, 2004 5:05:07 AM

Mozilla is the most standards compatible web browser, not KHTML/Safari. Get your facts right.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 23, 2004 6:01:15 AM