Watch Dogs

It’s Blue Beanie Day! A day celebrating and showing support for web standards. I’m a little biased perhaps, since it’s my field, but I believe the web is among the most important things human beings have ever done. For starters, it enables international commerce, it enables connection and collaboration between people who may never have had that opportunity, it can make news more instant and honest, and it’s a knowledge base bigger than we can even comprehend. #deepthoughts.

The vibe around Blue Beanie Day, as I experience it, changes over time. That’s because people change, technology changes, and so what feels immediately important changes. And also because caring about web standards is a pretty abstract concept. It’s easy to raise our YAY WEB pom-poms, but sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on why web standards matters so much.

Here’s a gross simplification (and probably under dramatization) of the past:

Early days: Renegade band of folks see how important the web is and how we could lose it if things get any more fragmented and difficult across competing browsers. They fight for web standards.

Then: Web standards are getting some traction, we need to rally support.

Then: Web standards take hold. Browser wars are largely over. Instead, browsers compete on how well they support standards. Web people rejoice.

Then: Web standards taken for granted. Mobile goes nuts. Native apps on mobile have loads of capability advantages. Web scrambles to catch up.

So here we are. We’re working with the best web we’ve ever had. It’s getting better faster than it ever has. Yet pressure to make it even more capability-rich is very strong, and it puts us in a precarious position.

One tangible example is notifications. Native apps can send you notifications. Get a DM on Twitter? Your Twitter app on your phone can tell you that, whether you have that open or not. The Twitter website can’t. Uh oh, if the web is going to complete, it better get real notifications. So Safari works on their own system for it. The Blink team and other groups go for the standards process and Service Workers. Maybe Safari will adopt Service Workers. Maybe not. If you’re website is serious about notifications, it should probably do it both ways.

Complication grows.

Death By 1,000 Complications

There is a new Web Animations API as well, that only the Blink universe has adopted. It will be interested to see how grid layout shakes out. Only IE has shipped it, but it’s behind spec. These are just a few examples, but they are real. They might all have happy endings, they may not.

What if we end up having to do a thing 3 different ways for 3 different browsers? We might happily do it. We might think it’s a fun challenge. After all, we’re building something awesome. Then next time we need to do another thing 4 different ways for 4 different browsers. We’re less excited. We get tired of it. We start making mistakes and getting lazy about it. Companies stop investing in it, because it gets time consuming and expensive. We stop doing it. Users get fed up with busted websites. The web loses.

What if there are 50 new features with varied levels of browser support that come out in the next year? Do we celebrate innovation? Or do we need an intervention?

Other Industries

Video games makes for some interesting analogies. I have a PlayStation 4. I have the game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for it, on a disc. I paid a bunch of money for both the system and the game. My friend Randy has an XBox 360. I know that I can’t lend him my game. It won’t work. I’m not mad about it. Nobody gets mad that their video games aren’t cross-system compatible.

I use some other software. I use Google Inbox for my personal email. When it launched, it required a certain browser to be used: Google Chrome. This software only worked on this system, just like my Shadow of Mordor and PS4. I paid $0 for Google Inbox and $0 for Google Chrome. Yet, people get pretty mad that this website isn’t cross-browser compatible.

Seems out of whack. Seems like Google should be able to mandate whatever they want with the software they build and let people use for free. We’re subject to these restrictions all the time. #business

But, that is our caring about the web and standards at work. We get mad because we care about the web. We don’t care about Sony or Microsoft and their profits. We care because the web is this hugely important human innovation. We care because if we start tolerating websites that aren’t cross-browser compatible, we’re turning our backs on web standards. If we don’t care, we might lose the whole damn thing.

Of course this is more complicated. Of course Google benefits from web standards and users using their things. Of course my PlayStation 4 has a standardized HDMI port on the back of it because it needs to be cross-compatible with TVs.

Just for funzies (and your own metaphorical interpretations), here’s some quotes regarding standardization issues in other industries.

From Paul Ford’s article The Group That Rules the Web:

Consider the Buffalo Convention, of 1908, when player-piano manufacturers met at the Iroquois Hotel in Buffalo. At issue was the number of perforations per inch that would be punched into the rolls used to map out songs for the pianos; some people favored nine, some favored eight, and the difference meant increased costs, manufacturer distress, and customer confusion.

From Sheldon Brown’s website on Tire Sizing Systems:

Bicycle tires come in a bewildering variety of sizes. To make matters worse, in the early days of cycling, every country that manufactured bicycles developed its own system of marking the sizes. These different national sizing schemes created a situation in which the same size tire would be known by different numbers in different countries. Even worse, different-sized tires that were not interchangeable with one another were often marked with the same numbers!

From the Wikipedia article on Screws:

Modern screws employ a wide variety of drive designs, each requiring a different kind of tool to drive in or extract them. The most common screw drives are the slotted and Phillips in the US; hex, Robertson, and Torx are also common in some applications, and Pozidriv has almost completely replaced Phillips in Europe. Some types of drive are intended for automatic assembly in mass-production of such items as automobiles. More exotic screw drive types may be used in situations where tampering is undesirable, such as in electronic appliances that should not be serviced by the home repair person.

I’m not overly pessimistic

Despite the dire tone, I’m actually not particularly worried about the web. It feels like smart people are in the right places, leading the charge, and doing smart things to push it forward. It feels like most new features are approached from the “let’s build this and standardize it at the same time” angle, which seems perfect. It feels like this are moving pretty fast.

I’m encouraged by the fact that most browsers are evergreen (update automatically) now. I’m encouraged by the fact that whenever net neutrality comes up in government, people freak out about it.

Christian Heilmann worries about the blue-beanie message:

… it starts to feel a bit stale though. I get the feeling we are losing our touch to what happens these days and celebrate the same old successes over and over again.

This could be normal disillusionment of having worked in the same field for a long time. It also could be having heard the same messages over and over. I start to wonder if the message of “use web standards: is still having an impact in today’s world.

I agree that the generic “use web standards” message is stale. Web standards has won, but now we need to protect it. Perhaps now, when you don a blue beanie, it means you’re a watch dog for the web. You bark when companies, processes, or people run afoul of standards. You growl when you see the web fragmenting again.

Watch Dogs is a post from CSS-Tricks

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