Problems with Web Standards: Part II

Part II: Browser Wars are Back

Background: I’ve been reading with great interest the current concern over the W3C process for web standards and the lack of progress being made. Andy Clarke kicked it off by asking the W3C to disband the CSS working group. Alex Russell followed up declaring that the W3C Cannot Save Us. Jeff Croft, playing his usual role of rabble rouser, echoes Alex’s sentiments in an post entitled, “Do We Need a Return to Browser Wars.

I believe a return to browser wars is inevitable and that in some ways we are already there. One of the reasons we haven’t seen a return to the browser wars of old is that as developers we haven’t been struggling against the limitations of browsers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there aren’t features like column support in CSS3 that would make our lives easier. Or that better support of current standards in Internet Explorer wouldn’t save us a lot of time and money.

Instead, I’m saying that when faced with these challenges we can still build compelling sites and applications. We can build multi-column layouts using our current CSS implementations. We can workaround problems in IE. We can build solutions using Flash, Flex or Silverlight if we need something that stretches the paradigm further.

Contrast this to the days of the browser wars when the standards available to us–what few existed–were woefully inadequate for us being able to build businesses and industry around this new technology. The browser specific implementations were welcomed because new formatting options allowed us to build what we otherwise couldn’t accomplish.

When none of the standards available meet the demands of a growing market is when you will start to see browser manufacturers releasing proprietary extensions. And you have to look no further than mobile to see this is in action.

A week before Andy Clarke wrote that the CSS working group needed to be disbanded, Apple published an extension to javascript. This extension provides access to the orientation of the iPhone. DevPhone has a good explanation and example of the code.

Here is what is notable about this extension: it is providing access to something unique to mobile devices that there is no standard way of accomplishing. You can’t get at orientation using Flash, javascript, css or any other technology without this extension.

And orientation of the phone is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some other things that developers are likely to want to do on the mobile web that web standards do not currently provide any access to:

  • Access the location of the phone via gps or cell tower signal strength
  • Quick access to the phone number of the mobile device to speed entry
  • Triggering text messaging applications
  • Taking photos using the phone’s camera

This is a quick list of possible uses. There are many more. Each of the items on the list can be utilized to build powerful web applications. As the mobile web takes off, developers will be clamoring for ways to access these functions on phones.

And when the developers clamor to build exciting applications for mobile devices, the developers of the browsers on those devices will quickly choose to leave behind the standards bodies.

How likely do you think it is that Opera, Apple, Nokia and Microsoft will sit down and come to some agreement about how to implement these features? Given the coming battle for dominance over the mobile web and the size of the potential market (over half the world’s population), the most likely outcome is that we will see a return to proprietary extensions—a replay of the browser wars except on the mobile web.