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Plus ça change......

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Author: John Allsopp

History: First published at John's blog, dog or higher, May 2004.

Westciv's John Allsopp sees a potentially bleak future for the dream that was web standards. Microsoft have overwhelming dominence of the browser playing field, despite brave efforts by Opera and Mozilla. They also have no intention to upgrade IE 6 until the release of Longhorn in 2006. So what is the point in innovating with new and exciting features in CSS and xhtml when no browser will support them? The only source of hope is that the gap left by Microsoft's development road map leaves room for a brave or foolish player to step in.

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 me 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 to 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 playing 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 a 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 the act as well, as they did when IE was not the colossus it has become.

Plus ça reste la même chose.

See John's blog, Dog or higher, for comments on this piece. This article was slashdotted: read the comments of the denizens of /. here.

John Allsopp is a director at westciv and the lead developer of Style Master CSS editor. He writes widely on web standards and software development issues and maintains the blog dog or higher.

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