3 min read

The Web Doesn't Suck. Browsers Are Innovating.

This week saw a flurry of back-and-forth about the future of the web platform. In the "web sucks" camp were Sachin Agarwal of Posterous (The Web Sucks. Browsers need to innovate) and Joe Hewitt (Sachin summarized some of his tweets at @joehewitt agrees with me).

Chris Blizzard responded with a few narrow examples of what Firefox has been doing lately (geolocation, orientation, WebGL).

On Hacker News, most of the comments took Sachin to task for his argument that standards don't matter, pointing people back to the "bad old days" of the browser wars.

In my opinion, both camps kind of miss the point.

Sachin made some very pointed factual claims which are just complete, pure hokum. Close to the top of his post, he says:

Web applications don't have threading, GPU acceleration, drag and drop, copy and paste of rich media, true offline access, or persistence. Are you kidding me?

Really? Are you kidding me. In fact, browsers have implemented, and the WHAT-WG has been busily standardizing, all of these things for quite a number of years now. Threading? Check. GPU acceleration? Check and check. Drag and drop? Check. Offline access and persistence? Check and check.

Almost universally, these features, which exist in shipping browsers today, were based on experiments conducted years ago by browsers (notably Firefox and Safari, more recently Chrome), and did not wait for approval from the standards bodies to begin implementing.

In fact, large swaths of HTML5 are based on proposals from browsers, who have either already implemented the feature (CSS-based animations and transitions) or who then build the feature without waiting for final approval. And this is transparently obvious to anyone, since HTML5 has not not yet been approved, and some parts are the subject of internal W3C debate, yet the browsers are implementing the parts they like and innovating in other areas.

You can see this explicitly in the features prefixed with -moz or -webkit, because they're going ahead and implementing features that have not gotten consensus yet.

In 2010, the WHAT-WG is a functioning place to bring a proposal for further review once you're conducting some experiments or have a working implementation. Nobody is sitting on their hands waiting for final approval of HTML5. Don't confuse the fact that people are submitting their ideas to the standards bodies with the misguided idea that only approved standards are being implemented.

And in fact, this is basically never how it's worked. Apple implemented the <canvas> tag and <input type="search"> in 2004 (here's a 2004 rant from the editor of the then-brand-new HTML5 spec). Opera and Apple worked on the <video> tag in 2007. The new CSS flexible box model is based on XUL, which Firefox has had for over a decade. HTML5 drag and drop support is based on implementations shipped by the IE team over a decade ago. Firefox has been extending JavaScript for almost its entire history (most recently with JavaScript 1.8).

CSS transition, transforms and animations were built by Apple for the iPhone before they were a spec, and only later ported to the desktop. Firefox did the initial experimentation on WebGL in 2006, back when they were calling it Canvas 3d (here's a working add-on by Mozilla developer Vladimir Vukićević).

Google Gears shipped what would become the Application Cache, Web Storage, and Web Workers, proving out the concepts. It also shipped geolocation, which is now part of the HTML5 spec.

@font-face originally shipped in Internet Explorer 5.5. Apple has added new mobile events (touchstart, touchmove, touchend, onorientationchange) with accompanying JavaScript APIs (Apple developer account needed) without any spec activity that I can discern. Firefox, at the same time, added support for hardware accelerometers.

Even Microsoft bucked the standards bodies by shipping its own implementation of the W3C's "cross-origin-resource-sharing" spec called Cross domain request, and shipped it in IE8.

It's perfectly understandable that people who haven't been following along for the past few years might have missed all of this. But the fact remains that browser vendors have been moving at a very rapid clip, implementing all kinds of interesting features, and then sharing them with other browsers for feedback, and, one hopes, consensus.

Some of these implementations suck (I've heard some people say not-nice things about WebGL and drag-and-drop, for instance). But that's quite a bit different from saying that browsers are sitting on their hands waiting for the W3C or WHAT-WG to tell them what to do.