Christian Heilmann

To hell with browser wars panels

Friday, May 11th, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Summary: Browser War panels have become predictable and non-informative. Instead they are there to entertain the audience but cause much more drama than good.

State of the Browser 2 panel

I go to a lot of conferences. I organised events, a conference and a few unconferences and I spoke at a lot of them. Lately I also stepped back a bit to coach people to speak instead of me going everywhere.

I think conferences should do a few things: educate, entertain, allow people to network and make speakers and experts available to attendees.

You don’t need to go to conferences to learn things – all the information is on the internet and signing up to a few good feeds, groups and lists will get you all the info you want.

What conferences do is bring the human factor into it. A good speaker can make a topic come to life and show you an angle you had not thought about and inspire you to play with it. A good workshop gives you guidance how to use a technology and gives you a way in without being overwhelmed by a big scary topic. A conference gives you time out from the day to day delivery and allows you to do things that are not yet on the radar of your company but might be soon.

And then there are “browser war panels”. The original premise of the browser war panels was that an audience could hear the latest and coolest about different browsers and ask questions. The first ones were held at Yahoo and had lead engineers from the different browsers to show how the different products work as that was dark magic back then.

HTML5 defines how a browser should deal with the content it gets – we have a lot more predictability already in the standard. A lot of great information on this topic is out on the web and the accelerated speed of delivery of browsers makes the appearance of platform engineers not happening much. There is no need to repeat the standards, instead the discussions are much more about what makes which browser stand out and in a lot of cases this means what the company wants to promote – not what developers want to use now and get stuck as it doesn’t work.

Browser panels these days get people from companies who are either product evangelists of the browsers or general tech evangelists, advocates, or – in the worst case – sales people. This could be good, they can point out features that are in the browsers people don’t know about and they can show some of the plans for the future of the browser. It can also be awful. As browsers are interesting to the media out of a sudden you see a lot of patterns being followed. Instead of giving information about the browsers, dealing with concerns of developers and implementers or showing changes panelists begin to fall into predefined roles and repeat the messages of the companies they represent.

It becomes predictable to see which company representative will value speed over everything else, which one will praise a great experience in the browser as part of a bigger OS experience, which one will talk about following standards and complain about sites blocking out browsers and which one will point out that the browser is the choice of the user and should keep them in control by being open about everything whilst following standards.

The bigger focus on browsers we have these days makes a panel much less of an educational part of the conference (many a time you will get “I have to go back to the engineering team for this”) but pushes it into the entertainment part of a conference. It is a veiled sales pitch.

Everybody loves a good drama. You could go as far as saying that we have a whole tech journalism market that lives on drama. It is fun to see people disagree on topics and make good arguments about one side or another.

A quite open, unscripted and unplanned format like a panel makes for great drama. It is easy to take potshots at each other and score browny points with the audience with pointing out flaws of the other browsers in a glib fashion. It also gives browny points with the audience to make sweeping statements or deliver soundbites.

Soundbites, being witty and fast are becoming the most important part. If you look at the Twitter stream of a browser panel you will hardly ever find a “oh feature $x will ship in browser $y – so cool” but you will get more “$x of browser $y just called $z out on the $a issue”.

Soundbites are also loved by the press. And as drama brings headlines many a time you will find a sarcastic remark or glib retort show up as “Company representative $x said $y about the competition”. A quick shot to get a giggle out of the audience can cause the communications team of a company to get a lot of unnecessary work. Is that worth it?

I’ve even been on panels where the organisers deliberately asked panelists to find topics to disagree on or seen panel moderators throw out one loaded question after another to entice people to disagree and get the drama going. We call this trolling or baiting, and not a way for conference participants to learn about what is going on in the browser world.

It is not hard to find what is going on in the browser world when you look at the open source engines. You hear much less about the closed ones and to me a panel that has no participant of Apple on it is not a “browser wars” panel as it lacks a massive player who should answer quite a few questions web developers have.

There are exceptions. I thoroughly enjoyed being on the panel at State of the Browser 2 in London and I think as there were no egos and no artificial drama we managed to answer quite a few questions from the audience. But on the whole, these are few and far between and many a “Browser Wars” panel is entertainment and cheap laughs or “wow, did he just say that” moments.

This, in the long run, is not fair to the audience who paid good money (and should get real comedians or entertainers if entertainment is the goal), it is not fair to the platform engineers (as they are misrepresented instead of allowing people to peek under the hood with them) and it does not get us anywhere in the real “browser wars”.

As developers you should not be tempted to build for one browser only and you should not have to build different versions for different browsers. Keeping it all about drama and who shouts the loudest and comes across as most witty doesn’t make that happen. It is a waste of time.

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