Christian Heilmann

⚡️Web Truths: The web is better than any other platform as it is backwards compatible and fault tolerant

Saturday, November 18th, 2017 at 3:26 pm

This is part of the web truths series of posts. A series where we look at true sounding statements that we keep using to have endless discussions instead of moving on. Today I want to tackle the issue of the web as a publication platform and how we keep repeating its virtues that may not apply to a publisher audience.

The web is better than any other platform as it is backwards compatible and fault tolerant

This has been the mantra of any web standards fan for a very long time. The web gets a lot of praise as it is to a degree the only platform that has future-proofing built in. This isn’t a grandiose statement. We have proof. Web sites older than many of today’s engineers still work in the newest browsers and devices. Many are still available, whilst those gone are often still available in cached form. Both search engines and the fabulous wayback machine take care of that – whether you want it or not. Betting on the web and standards means you have a product consumable now and in the future.

This longevity of the web stems from a few basic principles. Openness, standardisation, fault tolerance and backwards compatibility.

Openness

Openness is the thing that makes the web great. You publish in the open. How your product is consumed depends on what the user can afford – both on a technical and a physical level. You don’t expect your users to have a certain device or browser. You can’t force your users to be able to see or overcome other physical barriers. But as you published in an open format, they can, for example, translate your web site with an online system to read it. They can also zoom into it or even use a screenreader to hear it when they can’t see.

One person’s benefit can be another’s annoyance, though. Not everybody wants to allow others to access and change their content to their needs. Even worse – be able to see and use their code. Clients have always asked us to “protect their content”. But they also wanted to reap the rewards of an open platform. It is our job to make both possible and often this means we need to find a consensus. If you want to dive into a messy debate about this, follow what’s happening around DRM and online video.

Standardisation

Standardisation gave us predictability. Before browsers agreed on standards, web development was a mess. Standards allowed us to predict how something should display. Thus we knew when it was the browser’s fault or ours when things went wrong. Strictly speaking standards weren’t necessary for the web to work. Font tags, center tags, table layouts and all kind of other horrible ideas did an OK job. What standards allow us to do is to write quality code and make our lives easier. We don’t paint with HTML. Instead, we structure documents. We embed extra information and thus enable conversion into other formats. We use CSS to define the look and feel in one central location for thousands of documents.

The biggest benefactors of standards driven development are developers. It is a matter of code quality. Standards-compliant code is easier to read, makes more sense and has predictable outcome.

It also comes with lots of user benefits. A button element is keyboard, touch and mouse accessible and is available even to blind users. A DIV needs a lot of developer love to become an interactive element.

But that doesn’t mean we need to have everything follow standards. If we had enforced that, the web wouldn’t be where it is now. Again, for better or worse. XHTML died because it was too restrictive. HTML5 and lenient parsers were necessary to compete with Flash and to move the web forward.

Backwards compatibility

Backwards compatibilty is another big part of the web platform. We subscribed to the idea of older products being available in the future. That means we need to cater for old technology in newer browsers. Table layouts from long ago need to render as intended. There are even sites these days publishing in that format, like Hacker News. For browser makers, this is a real problem as it means we need to maintain a lot of old code. Code that not only has a diminishing use on the web, but often even is a security or performance issue. Still, we can’t break the web. Anything that goes into a “de facto standard” of web usage becomes a maintenance item. For a horror story on that, just look at all the things that can go in the head of a document. Most of these are non-standard, but people do rely on them.

Fault tolerance

Fault tolerance is a big one, too. From the very beginning web standards like HTML and CSS allow for developer errors. In the design principles of the language the “Priority of Constituencies” states it as such:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity

This idea is there to protect the user. A mistake made by a developer or a third party piece of code like and ad causing a problem should not block out users. The worrying part is that in a world where we’re asked to deliver more in a shorter amount of time it makes developers sloppy.

The web is great, but not simple to measure or monetise

What we have with the web is an open, distributed platform that grants the users all the rights to convert content to their needs. It makes it easy to publish content as it is forgiving to developer and publisher errors. This is the reason why it grew so fast.

Does this make it better than any other platform or does it make it different? Is longevity always the goal? Do we have to publish everything in the open?

There is no doubt that the web is great and was good for us. But I am getting less and less excited about what’s happening to it right now. Banging on and on about how great the web as a platform is doesn’t help with its problems.

It is hard to monetise something on the web when people either don’t want to pay or block your ads. And the fact that highly intrusive ads and trackers exist is not an excuse for that but a result of it. The more we block, the more aggressive advertising gets. I don’t know anyone who enjoys interstitials and popups. But they must work – or people wouldn’t use them.

The web is not in a good way. Sure, there is an artisinal, indie movement that creates great new and open ways to use it. But the mainstream web is terrible. It is bloated, boringly predictable and seems to try very hard to stay relevant whilst publishers get excited about snapchat and other, more ephemeral platforms.

Even the father of the WWW is worried: Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: The system is failing .

If we love the web the way we are happy to say all the time we need to find a solution for that. We can’t pretend everything is great because the platform is sturdy and people could publish in an accessible way. We need to ensure that the output of any way to publish on the web results in a great user experience.

The web isn’t the main target for publishers any longer and not the cool kid on the block. Social media lives on the web, but locks people in a very cleverly woven web of addiction and deceit. We need to concentrate more on what people publish on the web and how publishers manipulate content and users.

Parimal Satyal’s excellent Against a User Hostile Web is a great example how you can convey this message and think further.

In a world of big numbers and fast turnaround longevity isn’t a goal, it is a nice to have. We need to bring the web back to being the first publishing target, not a place to advertise your app or redirect to a social platform.

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