Christian Heilmann

Web standards advocacy needs to start answering questions of the now

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012 at 10:09 pm

When the discussion is about HTML5 vs. Native code to deliver apps it is very hard to come to a consensus. There is a massive animosity against the web and myths prevail over realities and opportunities.

I find more and more that this is not a matter of technology and development environment but I feel that it goes deeper than that. We are at a tipping point in web development – technology progresses and our user base progresses – but the people who brought web development to where it is now are still believing and advocating a longevity that might not be there any longer.

A few days ago the social channels around web development – aka our echo chamber – was full of people donning blue beanies on their photos and avatars to celebrate the success and remind people of the need of web standards and Jeffrey Zeldman’s breakthrough book on the topic of designing with them.

Using web standards instead of writing browser specific code and forking for each browser to come meant first and foremost a few things:

  • You built in a robust, future proof way and not for the current state of play
  • You craved agreement, you built on agreed principles and ideas which meant that the next person can use your code without having to pester you for information on how it works
  • You craved clean separation of structure, presentation and behaviour, thus making your code easier to maintain by people who specialised in each of those departments

All of this plays to the concept of the longevity of the web. From the get-go the concept of the web was to be built to last. Cool links don’t change and all that. The web grew because of a few reasons:

  • It is incredibly simple to start publishing on the web
  • Content created is in an open, simple to convert format – HTML written a decade ago is still readable now
  • Creating content and allowing people to add, amend and edit was simple. Wikipedia, IMDB and thousands of forums revolving around the most random topics prove that
  • Adding knowledge and content on the web – even in the most ridiculous Geocities rainbow divider ridden format – meant that it gets archived and people can find it years later when all the university papers writen on the same subject are on non-readable floppies and their printouts faded

In essence, we saw the web as a big archive and and Google’s caches prove that it can be done. The web does, seemingly, not forget.

Fleeting content, first edition

Of course there were web products that had a due date and got bad after a while. Movie web sites, conference and festival sites, product ads in web form – anything locked in time and costly to keep up was created and vanished from the web. These sites were also the ones that didn’t care much for web standards – their job was to be amazing for a short while and get people excited about a certain product. As web standards advocates they annoyed us as they violated our sacred principles and were beautiful and successful at the same time. I remember saying that if you want to play as a designer and not care about boundaries and longevity, movie web sites are the best to make quick money and move on. I also remember Andy Clarke giving a talk showing how rich and beautiful for example the (now defunct) Watchmen web site was and how we as web designers should see this as a goal to reach – a beautiful, interactive and media rich web.

This is the chip we have on our shoulders as web developers – the cool and amazing is most likely not possible with standards as we want to make everybody equally happy. We want to build for the long term, we don’t want to add to the already large landfill of outdated, unloved and unmaintained products out there that clog up search results.

A product of our environment

Our environments were desktop computers, then laptops and we are very likely to keep local copies of our work on CDs, DVDs and external hard drives should something happen to our servers or should we be offline. Our main drive was to add to the awesome that is the web and to keep things lasting for a long time. A broken link and a resource that vanished annoyed and hurt us. This is not why we spend hours making things maintainable, right?

The web is a given and consumption is king

Fast forward to the now. The web is not this magical cool thing any longer that everybody wants to be part of. A large series of publishing communities coming and going (Geocities, Google Pages, MySpace, Livejournal) and the rise of the “real time web” with timely updates and image and video uploads instead of writing longer content has made the web a much more ubiquitous and “given” thing for people. You are more likely to catch trolls and spammers with an open comment system than people who give you feedback. Feedback to things you write and publish happens on Facebook, in Google+, on Reddit and on Hackernews. And none of that lasts – you have a few hours window to be awesome and then the next thing will be around to keep people’s attention and incite discussions and GIF uploads to the thread. The attention span is shortened and the MEME-ification of everything and getting things viral is more important than the content or if what you said holds true a few weeks later.

Downloads and non-changing links are not that needed any more, faster and more stable connections allow for streaming on demand instead of getting a song or a movie and going through the pains of tagging and naming them so you find them later on.

We have to face that the web is becoming just another consumption medium. That doesn’t mean the old web of longevity and archiving doesn’t exist any more – it just means that it is the playground of a few whereas the big market just wants to have a quick fix and some fun. If something can’t be found any longer – no big deal, let’s read/watch something else instead.

A need better answered by apps

This is where the mobile environment, with native apps and closed app stores and environments excels. It is a very fleeting space, nothing there cares about longevity, it is all about the immediate success and the next new thing around the corner. The market we target with apps doesn’t care about the long term, it is about instant gratification and the cool and new. When was the last time you played the original Angry Birds? How many of the apps you have on your phone do you really use, and how many are orphaned?

For developers who just started this is incredibly interesting. They want to build something quick, make money and move on. For this, learning what you are doing is boring and in the way. They want an environment to download, install and build things in and ship it to the newest coolest device of the very moment. Doesn’t run on older devices? Who cares?

Changing our tactics and answering the now

Of course this feels terrible to us and – in my case – makes us very angry. Just from a sustainability and environmental point of view seeing mobile devices a year old being blocked out from newest software updates disgusts me and makes me think of “Brave New World”:

“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.”

- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 3

It is Flash part two – back when Flash was hot we got smirked at by Flash developers who rolled out hard to maintain, short lived products and made a lot of money and told us that this is the future and our environment will be history soon. Whilst that did not quite work out the way these shortsighted Flash developers thought (and by all means I don’t describe all Flash developers with that – far from it) we have exactly the same situation now – except that the focus of marketing and people’s buying habits is focused on native apps whereas back then nobody cared what tech your game/site was built in. We don’t play on the same court any longer – we lose people to the one with the locked gate.

Here’s the irony of our fight for web standards: if we really want the web to succeed and HTML5 be an interesting opportunity for developers now we need to partner with the people who used and built in Flash. This is so not about semantics and static pages any longer, it is about apps. It is also not about our way of working and adding to the web in very maintainable ways for a group of experts to work together. Developers now want to do it all from beginning to end. We need people who rolled out apps for the web that followed the same rules OS native apps did. And that was Flash/Flex, and it was good at it. We don’t need more repetition of what made the web great – we need to roll out a massive amount of developer tools that can hold their own against the things iOS and Android comes with. Our web standards world is a labour of love – we build complex and beautiful chippendale furniture that can be thrown about without breaking but the market wants a lot of IKEA Billy shelves that can be put up quickly and break when you dismantle them. We don’t have the answer how to build those.

The web needs to be the thing that allows you to roll out code quicker, in a more convenient way and across devices than native environments do. And we don’t get there by wearing blue caps and talking about benefits that applied years ago. We need to be as flexible as the technologies we stand for.

Share on Mastodon (needs instance)

Share on Twitter

My other work: