found drama

get oblique


by Rob Friesel

And so, Nigel McFarlane prophecies the end of the web browser. Or at least, breaks down why a new “browser war” may be necessary to keep it from slipping into obscurity and disappearing to all but “a few idealistic hippies, some idle perverts, and the disaffected.”

First and foremost, let’s get one thing out of the way: While McFarlane “[spends] a lot of time with browser technology” he does his readers a disservice by synonymizing Mozilla and the DOM. Granted, that’s not such a hard thing to do when it’s so easy to antonymize Internet Explorer and that same DOM. And now, on to the crux of it all!

McFarlane’s article, while mostly a piece of pro-Mozilla propaganda (last cheap-shot, I swear!) focuses primarily on the harsh reality of popularity vs. quality.

Reducing browser analysis to a popularity contest, however, seems to have a magical effect: It turns off the brains of most commentators. Popularity is an ogre that prevents any real analysis of industry trends. As a result, we’re all less informed than we should be. Normally perceptive pundits […] are reduced to “I like it” [or] “I don’t like it”[…].

Overall, the votes stack up in favor of Firefox […]. But even those in favor are sometimes deflated by the sense that perhaps, for the average person, the quality work that better features imply just isn’t that important. Homer Simpson, they imagine, would stick to Internet Explorer and not know the difference.

He (and others) could (and sometimes do) beat this adage in to the ground. Fortunately, he doesn’t leave it at that and spends little more time than to acknowledge those challenges before moving on to the grittier points re: security, architecture, standards, and flat-out, good ol’ fashioned data.

W/r/t/ security, there needs little else be said than:

I had to scrub the box back to the bare metal and reinstall two years of software, all merely to get Mr. Psychotic Web Marketer off my case, and my PC stabilized. […] I really don’t want to spend my life preparing for every stupid accidental security breach. A computer shouldn’t require the management of a nuclear power plant.

But tell me something I don’t know. Not that we can safely say Mozilla (or Safari or Opera or…) is so locked down that none-of-the-above are possible… But seriously, when was the last time someone spoofed your address bar in Safari? (help: protocols aside…)

Where McFarlane seems to be at his strongest in the article is when he delves in to web standards and makes some allusions to the RDBMS “wars” of the early nineties (though I might be off a little in my dates):

At the time, competition between RDBMS vendors was fierce, even after Oracle gained the edge. The emergence of the SQL92 standard represented a crisis for all vendors. If SQL92 was widely applied, RDBMS servers would be reduced to a marginally profitable commodity. The database vendors knew that open data was a customer issue, and to make money they had to show that they were dedicated to addressing the issue. There followed an extensive period of rhetoric about striving for standards compliance. In reality, though, no vendor wanted standards compliance. For a long time, there was a “go slow” on actual standards implementation from all vendors.

Sound familiar? Similar “go slow” attitudes are why the big fat Flamingo book has chapters like this one (PDF). I mean seriously, how many ways can we possibly expect to display blocks of text with the occassional image? But this is also where I feel that McFarlane loses points. Rather than place the emphasis *on* CSS/(X)HTML standardization and the intended purpose of the W3C, he focuses on Mozilla-rooted technologies and their slow but steady growth. Granted, the title of the article is “Smoke, Mirrors and Silence: The Browser Wars Reignite” but as we near the end of the text and find that the focus is on the content/data and not the chrome, one can only wonder why so much energy is expended on praising the big red lizard.

For proponents of open source software, the the Free Software Foundation and the EFF and the like, it’s easy to back Mozilla with gusto. It’s an open browser platform that’s everywhere (or seemingly so). It’s become one of the flagship products of Open Source and (in a manner of speaking) is the only *right* way to browse HTTP-transmitted data from a spiritually-correct point of view. But Mozilla is not the end-all-be-all of browsers or The Internet. Mozilla is simply a great tool for viewing web content that happens to be DOM-compliant (perhaps even DOM-guiding). And the fact that it does have a measurable market-share is something that we can all be thankful for. IE is not the only browser out there and many individuals are choosing to use something else. But deep down, it isn’t “right” to tout Mozilla as superior. It is superior to IE — but again, that’s because it’s DOM-compliant.

But back to the data. Back to the content. Back to the guts of it all — the reason people are even using a browser in the first place. McFarlane thinks that we have everything to lose from not being standards compliant. In a way, he is right. By failing to comply with standards, by failing to discuss these issues with our peers, by failing to make a concerted effort to adhere “for everyone’s own good”, we (1) prolong the agony of extraneous “chapter 2s”, (2) make more work for ourselves both short- and long-term, and (3) allow various proprietary schemas to establish themselves (recurse through #1 & 2). But I don’t see the same connection between the standards-push and Microsoft’s Longhorn as McFarlane does.

McFarlane thinks that adhering to browser standards will save us from Microsoft and their attempt to integrate internet content into our OS (or at least into smaller, helper apps that play nice w/ the OS at very fundamental levels). First, I don’t see how designing websites w/ the DOM in mind is going to stop this. Frankly, I see it as a step forward (though not in the way that many security-minded individuals instantly recognize and fear). McFarlane writes:

The web is used to provide a variety of services and communities. Part of the Longhorn strategy is to extract from the web all of the services with any profit model at all […] For Microsoft, the best possible outcome is for the standards-based web to be reduced to the profitless: a few idealistic hippies, some idle perverts, and the disaffected. Few others will want to go there; so every day there will be fewer traditional websites, every day less relevance.

This may not necessarily be such a bad thing. What instantly springs to mind are examples from Apple: Sherlock and the iTunes Music Store. These are both examples of non-browser based applications that use the internet and/or web-services to provide content live and direct to your desktop. And let’s be honest, it isn’t all that different from email. So does this mean that we’re returning to the pre-web days? The early internet of BBS’s and Prodigy and CompuServe and the not-as-evil AOL? Doubtful. But why would we want to necessarily exclude the possibility of opening ourselves up to web services? Do we really want to contain everything to HTTP? Let’s get serious: “view source” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Currently Playing: Impossible Recording Machine – “Like Air”

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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