Pushing beyond standardization

A recent series of posts by leading web developers have been questioning the pace of change for the web but maybe history can inform us here.

Mark Andreesen and the IMG tag

The evening of February 23, 1993 was mostly unremarkable around the internet. But on that evening, a brash young man by the name of Marc Andreessen sent an email that would drastically alter the course of history. In order to fully understand what happens there, one has to think of the internet prior to that day.

Before that message made its way through several mail servers, the internet was a mostly text-based medium. HTML, the source code for the web, may have linked to images but the idea of mixing images and text was not part of the internet experience. In fact, the idea of mixing anything just didn’t exist: a movie stayed a movie and was linked to independently but embedding it into a page was a concept that would not come to fruition until several years later.

Sound, images, moving images, text were all living in separate silos. Yes, they could be linked to but they mostly worked as dead ends as they could not move forward from there (think of a browser that would link images instead of having them embedded into the page and when you got to that image, your only available navigation would be to move back). And because they were mostly dead ends, they forced the web into a relatively hierarchical model. Text was free to cross-link but other media were not.

Andreesen’s stance was that they would implement the tag as proposed and were sending it to be discussed as part of a future implementation of the HTML standard (remember that, at that time, HTML was not yet a standard).

Netscape proprietary approach and forward motion

A few years later, Andreesen would continue on the same course with the company he co-founded, Netscape, pushing for new extensions to the HTML standard and then extending the browser even further. With every new browser introduction, Netscape would push out new features.

With much of the internet being widely open and standard-based, Netscape’s introduction of new things at a fast and furious rate rankled some of the early maintainers of the web. There was widespread worry that Netscape was “breaking” the web through its use of non-standard implementation. Among some of the things Netscape would introduce over this period would be things we cannot imagine not existing on the web.

For example, Netscape was the first to introduce web-cookies, which not only gave rise to the kind of tracking that most of the advertising industry relies on but also simplified and sped up the way in which pages could be customized or logins were remembered.

https, which is used to ensure that communication between your web browser and a remote server is encrypted so no one can break into it, was another such innovation, which gave rise to e-commerce and e-banking.

And then, there’s Javascript. In December 1995, Netscape announced Javascript as a programming language for the web that could run either on a server (but only on Netscape’s brand of web servers) or on the client. The world of programming was in a furor over the announcement, calling the language a horrible kludge and generally being unhappy that they had not been consulted to make the language more pure.

Every step of the way, developers started adopting Netscape’s innovation, giving rise to sites showing a “Best viewed with Netscape” icon. This, in turn, led the Netscape browser to be the most used web browser on the Internet, at some point being used for nearly every 8 or 9 out of 10 web page views on the internet.

Most of Netscape’s inclusions eventually made it into other browsers as they tried to capture market share from Netscape, and eventually, most of those innovation were standardized, ensuring their continuation moving forward. Netscape’s leadership and willingness to stand up to the rest of the industry in order to move forward may have eventually led to its death as a company but its impact is still felt daily.

Microsoft and AJAX

One of the companies that tried to mimic Netscape’s strategy was Microsoft. In order to make its web browser, Internet Explorer, more relevant to developers, Microsoft tried to introduce changes that were mostly proprietary to its web browser. Among those was a technology called ActiveX, which was Microsoft’s proprietary approach to plug-ins. Trying to differentiate its Office suite and Exchange server, Microsoft introduced the XMLHTTP ActiveX component, which allowed web applications to become much more interactive, in 1999.

Whether it was hatred of Microsoft or lack of awareness, the technology did not really get widespread adoption until Jesse James Garrett named the technology AJAX, for Asynchronous Javascript And XML.

The lesson in this is that to break a standard is not enough to get things moving forward. A way to brand that standard so it becomes easily understandable to a wider public goes a long way to garnering support for new technologies, whether they are standardized or not.

HTML5 needs a posse

Previous history points to progress on the web being largely made because people were willing to take a stand and move things forward, standards be damned. But it seems that few are willing to move things forward in a drastic way. To date, complete support for existing standards has been a challenge and it seems there is some level of calcification around breaking new ground.

The wonderful set of underlying technologies making the core of what we know as HTML5 may not be perfect but it’s the best thing we have so instead of crying about the poor implementation of this or that component, instead of asking why it’s missing certain pieces, let’s go out, as developers and stretch the limits of what is possible in a browser.

Break new ground and break old browser. Once you’ve done so, ask the others to implement the features you’re leveraging.

To implement in a standard-compliant way may be smart if you want to cater to the masses but if you want your app to be exceptional, you have to be willing to take the hits. Go ahead and break new ground by looking forward instead of staying to the shores of yesterday’s standard compliance.

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