A recent post of mine about Firefox and my general view of corporations and organizations caused a bit of a stir. It even caught the attention of Asa Dotzler, a prominent Mozilla employee. In Mr. Dotzler’s rebuff of my post he said something that has really bothered me. He said “It’s really hard for me to believe that either [Microsoft or Adobe] have the free and open Web at heart when they’re actively subverting it with closed technologies like Flash and Silverlight.” But are they really subverting it? Where exactly is the line between serving the consumer and subverting the web?
Standards behind the “free and open Web”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this statement, but using a term like “free and open” is such utopian propaganda. After all how could you be against “free and open” right? A brief look at the web standards groups might illustrate the real root of the problem though.
The W3C (World-Wide-Web Consortium) is the main standards body for the web. To say that they have a reputation for being slow is an understatement; their last XHTML/HTML recommendation (XHTML 1.1) was in 2001. That was seven years ago, or almost eternity in Internet or dog years.
Eventually it got so bad that some people from Apple, Mozilla, and Opera forked off into their own group called WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group) in 2004. They started, and are still working on, the draft of HTML 5 which has finally been adopted as the starting point for the W3C’s new HTML working group. Unfortunately, according to the WHATWG editor for HTML it doesn’t look like HTML 5 will be done until 2012; eight years after the WHATWG was formed, and eleven years after XHTML 1.1. That sounds like a rapid pace of innovation to me.
The real culprit
This may seem like a forgone conclusion to many of you after seeing the W3C’s development timetables, but the real reason Flash and Silverlight exist is because the “open web” people dropped the ball. HTML simply can handle what Flash and Silverlight can do. It has become increasingly stale for modern web development needs.
Here is some perspective, HTML5 has finally added a tag for handling video. Flash 6 came out with video support in 2002! Where is the HTML version of Line Rider? It is in Flash and Silverlight now. If you want to see something really interesting check out Hard Rock Cafe’s memorabilia page (Silverlight 2 required) and tell me if you’ve ever seen something like that with HTML. (Here are some other interesting examples)
I actually hate Flash, but I’m not going to blame Adobe for the fact that so many people and companies have decided to use it. It isn’t like Adobe is paying people on MySpace or bloggers to use Flash widgets. Youtube could have really only happened using Flash too.
AJAX to the rescue?
What about AJAX and all of those Web 2.0 sites though? They seem pretty sophisticated right? In short AJAX is a kludge of various technologies that were never intended to work together in this manner. It can work, but AJAX development is a pain. It gets even more complicated when you start to mix in other aspects of the “free and open” Web like SVG or CSS. It is anything but a cohesive set of technologies.
The real weak spot is in the development tools for “free and open” technologies. There are no AJAX development environments that can compare to the tools available for Flash and Silverlight, and the latter has only been out for one year. It is so bad that people made a big deal over a framework to make AJAX development a little easier.
Honey and Vinegar
I’m not against the idea of a “free and open” web, but obviously there is an increasing demand for a richer experience than that offered by the W3C’s dated technologies. After all there isn’t just one, but two major competitors to them.
If the web is going to steer clear of these proprietary environments the proponents of the standards will need to create the technologies that enable innovative new online experiences instead of just copying implementing features that have already been done before elsewhere. Complaining about the proprietary web won’t do anything, after all you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.