The Open Web: Can it deliver?

It’s ringing through my head as Microsoft releases Silverlight, as Adobe forces another version of Flash or Air, and as Sun tries to push JavaFX into the spotlight. It’s a dark whisper when I read how many still use old browsers (hello IE6!), or when I see Javascript being used poorly by otherwise knowledgeable programmers. It’s getting obvious when people complain over how hard and hacky HTML and CSS is.

People are simply not getting their job done fast enough. Just because we’ve hacked and hacked to the point of getting used to it, doesn’t mean our way of writing web apps is the best way. In the end it about delivering to end users or paying clients, and they care more about what you deliver than how. I’m not saying we are working slower than before, it’s the opposite, new tools makes web development less annoying. But I am saying that we get less work done in relation to the expectations.

So what do they expect? Well, they want flashy effects. The want application behavior. They want snappy response times, bright colors, and “Wow!”-reactions. For our clients, the web is getting more crowded every day and they need to fight harder and harder for people’s attention. That means you need to fight harder on their behalf.

Say you are a pro open standards developer, like me. What tools do you have to grab people’s attention? Valid HTML? DIVs with fading color? AJAX? No way man. A good Flash developer can get a wow reaction by the time you’ve chosen doctype (or at least by the time you’ve booted IE6).

So you turn to Google, and look for the latest and hottest in standards development. And you find that you need to use Javascript and Flash (sIFR) to render custom fonts. You find that you need to use (Adobe) Photoshop to add highlights and shadows on your headers. You find that you have to hack severely to be able to use alpha transparent images. To do any kind of animation, you need a big Javascript library, because browser makers have not yet (yes, it’s 2008) been able to collaborate on how the language should work.

You say that standards have to take time. That everyone needs to come together and thoroughly discuss important issues. The right committees and councils needs to be formed. Meanwhile Microsoft prepares for the release of Silverlight 2.

Have you no sense of urgency?

17 responses to “The Open Web: Can it deliver?

  1. Urgency? Well … not really, in the general sense (for each application, of course the urgency is there, but for the web as a whole, there’s not so much hurry).

    I’ll ask today “what is silverlight?” In a few years, I’m quite confidend I’ll ask “what was silverlight?” if I even remember that any such thing existed …

    Meanwhile, plain old web has apps like google maps, librarything, booli.se, wikipedia, … and more practically by the day!

    So no. I’m not the least bit worried that microsoft will take over the world. They failed that in 1996.

  2. Hmmm… Well, standards work, and especially standards implementations, does take a long time, and I’d definitely say that the failing part is the implementation one.

    Silverlight and Flex/Flash are definitely trying to compete with that, but given the number of drawbacks with those technologies, I don’t think they will kill off the web as we know it. I think a lot of people don’t really need flashy web sites either, it’s rather about communities, sharing and so on.

    It’s not like Facebook would be more popular if it had a lot of Flash apps in it (I think not, at least :-) ).

    But with that said, naturally I really think web browsers, across the line, should have proper built-in support for real column handling, animations, vector grapchics etc, etc.

  3. Say you are a pro open standards developer, like me. What tools do you have to grab people’s attention? Valid HTML? DIVs with fading color? AJAX? No way man. A good Flash developer can get a wow reaction by the time you’ve chosen doctype (or at least by the time you’ve booted IE6).

    I can deliver information, information marked up with semantic, standardize, rocksolid HTML. As long as those big flash websites don’t deliver just that, I’m going to continue with my stuff. And for that I don’t need Javascript, Photoshop or any other extraordinary things.

  4. @Rasmus Kaj: I’m not (only) talking about Microsoft taking over the web. I’m talking about all major internet based companies doing their best to tie people to their own technologies. It ranges from Apple to Google. That’s a force we need to be careful off.

  5. @Robert Nyman: They do work, right now. But I am worried about the future. The start of a slow gradual decline we’re seeing right now should be first sign that we need to keep pushing the open web stack forward. Faster.

  6. @icaaq: What says a Flash app can’t deliver information too? They are working on getting things right (indexing by Google, accessibility and so on), what are we doing to get up to their level?

  7. @Emil Stenström: What level? HTML in it’s most simplest way is a splendid way of delivering information, and that’s what it’s all about.

    I think it’s great that they are working towards getting things right, but I’m not worried about the future. HTML is the way to go. Then if we where going to spice up our HTML with some unobtrusive JavaScript to enhance the experience it’s all good!

    Another thing:

    To do any kind of animation, you need a big Javascript library, because browser makers have not yet (yes, it’s 2008) been able to collaborate on how the language should work.

    jQuery is about 15kb, DOMAssistant 7kb. And with todays internet connections, I wouldn’t say thats a problem, they make life easier.

  8. When I walked home from work I thought “Maybe I misunderstood everything about Emils post”. But then again I thought some more and Silverlight, Flash, Flex or any other media wont beat pure HTML. Not for many years at least….

  9. @icaaq: I made you think?! Twice? What a feat :) Just let me try to explain what I mean this way: Why are most campaign sites built in Flash? Why is Silverlight so hot among Microsoft developers?

  10. @icaaq: While I hope you’re right, but I don’t think that’s the case.

    More and more non-technical people are getting involved in web design who care nothing about the code being elegant, maintainable and up to standards. Instead they point their meaty finger at the screen showing justintimberlake.com and say, “There! I want it to look just like that!”

    Good luck trying to tell the person that signs your paycheques he can’t have it because it’s not standards compliant. There’s a lineup of people outside the door who are more than happy to sell their soul and take your place.

  11. @Emil: Are they hot? I don’t think so.

    @Kazabet: I don’t have those kind of problems.

    Maybe it’s because our clients has the insight of delivering information to their visitors and not only feelings or maybe I’m just a lucky guy!

    And as long as Silverlight and Flash is in a plugin-war with no proper standard. the big cornersstone of internet, HTML will not fall! Mark my word, it will not fall :)

  12. Add JavaFX to the mix. With most developers being comfortable with the environment, libraries, etc. JavaFX can get a following pretty quickly.

    I played around with Flex this summer and it’s not bad. Flash is often avoided due to SEO issues (unless it’s a short term tadaa! website), but if they fix that, Flex looks like a winner.

    As for Silverlight, it will go the way of vbscript. I think the HTML/CSS/AJAX combination is here to stay.

  13. 90% of the time I come across a page using Flash or some other technology I groan. Painfully slow page loads, miserable accessability, etc, etc. There’s a reason it’s called flash and not substance.

    We are increasingly seeing these ‘flashy’ technologies, like AJAX, like Silverlight, being abused at the expense of people even wanting to USE the website in the first place. I hit a page with flash for navigation, AJAX for content, download times measured in minutes on my 15mbps connect – all for stuff that could just as easily be a static image – you know what I do?

    I go to another site!!! …and I’m hardly alone in this attitude.

    Urgency for flashy rubbish? None. Me, I have an entirely different tack – people go to websites NOT for your flashy bullshit. They go to websites for the CONTENT. As such, content first in Minimalist Semantic Markup is the order of the day.

    How do I sell this to prospective clients? Simple, I explain accessability, UK accessability FINES, lowered maintennance costs, ease of content management, ease of re-skinning the whole page without having to re-enter all the content, lowered operating costs and faster page loads by way of less bandwidth used and better use of caching models.

    You have to explain and educate – showing them that sure, that page they are holding up as an example is really pretty… but there’s no content for search engines or screen readers to see, people can’t link directly to subpages reducing the likelyhood of backlinks because AJAX is being used as a replacement for FRAMESETS, and it’s 120+ files meaning that on the average we’re talking anywhere from 60 to 100 seconds overhead just from handshaking – BEFORE we even talk about bandwidth. (good luck with your site places like Utah and the Dakota’s where you are lucky if you can get a solid 33.6k dialup connection)

    Again, there’s a reason it’s called flash and not substance, there’s a REASON framesets are frowned upon, and a time and place to use technologies like AJAX and Silverlight.

    Unfortunately your flashtards end up throwing these technologies at everything whether it’s the right tool or not.

  14. @Jason: Thanks for a well articulated comment! As I say in the article: To me there’s a fight going on between Silverlight, JavaFX, Flash, and HTML/CSS/JS. The open web stack is winning right now, but we are seeing rapid development in the first three, and almost none in the last. People building Silverlight are developing accessibility features and Flash people are thinking of open-sourcing. Why does not anyone seem to realize that the open web urgently need to take the fight with them?

  15. mmm, again, emil, you utter the words that are so often tumbling around my head. having just finished my degree i’ve constantly been in flux as to whether to pursue a standards compliant course of action or jump ship (not that i’m saying that’s what’s on your mind) and opt for the flashy route over the past three years (being a designer, not a developer at heart).

    i think at the end of the day the best advice you can give to someone in this state of flux is to do what you enjoy, do what you’re good at, become the best and everything from there on it will slot into place nicely. hell, all the good blogs surround standards based stuff, like yours, not flash or anything else, so i gauge a lot from that alone.

    again, you’ve left me something to ponder over for the day.

    ps. digin’ the new look of the site – kinda backs up your mulling aptly really.

  16. @lewis litanzios: Thanks for the kind words. I hope to do just that, get people something to ponder about, or at least put what they do in a bigger context.

    I really miss Flash/Silverlight/JavaFX features in HTML/CSS/JS, and I really hope that they start to pop up soon… That would make your choice a lot easier :)

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