Web Standards

As many Flash Developers have heard, ECMAScript 4 has died. I’m not going to go into the details of the decision, although you can most likely blame Microsoft and their 80% browser stronghold on the web.

Nevertheless, the decision has raised significant issues around the web regarding web standards, and whether or not they have worked in the past or not.

Take for example IE and Firefox. Every web developer has experienced the browser compatibility problem. 90% of forum posts start with “Strange CSS bug, works in IE but not in FF” or “Script works in FF but not in IE” etc. Ironically, Adobe Flash’s success has largely come from this problem as Flash runs ubiquitously on every browser. While the W3C has made progress on creating web standards, in general it’s been a failure. Even newer browsers, aware of the recommended standards while in development still don’t pass Acid2. But why has this failed?

I think it’s by choice. Microsoft, Firefox, Safari, and Opera fight for the larger share in browser usage. If coders create a site that fits their browser, the idea is that more users will download that browser. For a long time, IE was the standard. Whenever a site didn’t work in IE, as a developer, you MADE it work on there knowing that 90% of the visitors to your site would have IE.

But a phenomenon happened: the open source movement. Firefox arrived as an open source competitor. It’s not that Firefox was better than competitors (it wasn’t). But because of the nature of Firefox just being open source, the browser had more power than other competitors to browser dominating Internet Explorer. Firefox complies with the web rather than the web complies with Firefox. This development strategy could have only existed on an open source project, as the developers of the project did not have the authority or mindset to take over the web.

But as mentioned earlier, Firefox has led to major problems to web designers and coders. It’s a pain to create stuff! Everyone wants a page to look the same on every browser and on every computer. Only a dream… and will stay a dream.

Having standards would fix this problem; however, how would the actual products react? How will innovation be affected? There are many parallels to government oversight in the economy and web standards… but we don’t have to go into that.

A fleet only goes as fast as its slowest ship. When Mozilla, Firefox, and Apple vote on a particular feature to be a standard, some will have to pick up the pace while others will have to slow down. And that is what has been happening at the W3C and ECMA. Adobe has included a bunch of features that it would have probably had to remove in order to comply with ECMA 4. Now that ECMA 4 is dead, Adobe can keep those features… and even develop new ones without having to wait for ECMA to accept or reject revisions.

Of course, the downside is that we developers will have to work extra hard to make our products work on multiple software. Meaning more browser specific pages and more time researching what works on a particular browser and what doesn’t.

But here is where I disagree. At this level, the benefit isn’t that someone with IE may see an awesome Javascript menu while someone on FF may see a image mapped navigation. The biggest misconception I have found is that coding standards are susceptible to the same criticism as software standards (Browsers, GUIs, colors). But it ain’t.

Here’s why: the standards proposed in ECMA 4 were in coding syntax rather than in any product output. At today’s high level coding languages, we can basically do anything we want with Javascript, Flex, and Actionscript; however, the syntax is different. And THIS is something that NEEDS standardization. Just because the experience of writing the literature of source code may be better and more intuitive on one platform than another doesn’t change the actual output of the product. This is why I think the dump of the ECMA standard is a BAD thing. The ECMA was a scripting standard. So Actionscript may get private constructors now, whooped-dee-do.

What would have happened if RSS standards weren’t introduced? Sure, maybe one RSS format would have “extra features”, but we wouldn’t have the RSS readers that we do today. The Google Reader team can focus on making their product better and not on how to read hundreds of different XML formats.

I’m not saying that ECMAScript is comparable to XML; however, I am trying to address the criticsm I have been reading trying to say that web standards hinder innovation and are always a bad thing.

The reason ECMA failed was because companies want to control the market. The excuse Microsoft and others use is that, in practical terms, the web doesn’t need certain coding features. But that’s just an excuse. Web applications are getting more and more advanced. A standard like ECMA 4, which would last for many years, needs to support the most advanced coding syntax as possible. Sure maybe most products are not big enough to really benefit from abstract classes, but in 2 or 3 years, when ECMA 4 was scheduled to be adopted and shipped with products, who knows? And what about in 5-6 years?

In other words, in the short term and for companies that have the capacity to advance their languages more than others (like Adobe) , and since AS4 may come out sooner, this decision is ultimately good in the short term and bad in the long term.