The New Browser War

JavaScript's creator details the challenges of getting to Version 2.0.

You could argue that Brendan Eich has had as much, if not more, influence on modern-day browsers than anyone. At Netscape Communications, he created JavaScript for the Netscape Navigator browser. He was co-founder of and helped spin out the Mozilla Foundation, where he served as lead technologist and a member of the board of directors. In 2005, Eich became chief technology officer of Mozilla Corp. and is currently readying Firefox 3.

Eich is also hard at work on JavaScript 2, a job complicated by disagreements within the Ecma International standards body, which standardized JavaScript as ECMAScript and is working on Version 4 of the language.

Some of Eich's disagreements are with Microsoft's participation in the process-seemingly opening up old wounds from the days when Microsoft killed off Netscape.

Eich sat down with Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft at Mozilla's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., earlier this spring to talk about a range of topics. This excerpt from their discussion focuses on JavaScript and where it is going.

What's up with JavaScript 2? Where does it stand, and when will we see it in browsers?

Since we're working in this context of Ecma [International], the standards body, it's really not possible to say when you'd see it in products; it's up to the various members that are working on it.

There was a big, well-known flap about it last fall, where it became clear that Microsoft and Doug Crockford at Yahoo were against the big improvement to the language. We were trying to do the language under the fourth edition number. ECMAScript 4 and JavaScript 2 are the same thing. And, actually, in our detailed spec where we talk about versioning, we make those two the same thing.

So we're not trying to have any JavaScript 2 differentiation vis-??í-vis the standard, as Netscape might have done once upon a time.

... It goes back to 1999, when the third edition was finished, and a lot of the development and design work that was done under Waldemar Horwat, who is at Google now but was at Netscape then, fed into actual languages-mainly, ActionScript in the Flash player and, Microsoft's ASP.Net, which is in the CLR [Common Language Run-time].

Waldemar is the guy I gave the keys to the kingdom to in 1998, when I went off to found I'd done JavaScript and taken it through standardization at Ecma, which hadn't really done much software before then.

A lot of people contributed. Sun contributed, Microsoft certainly contributed. And [Microsoft was] very interested at that point in gaining market share on Netscape. They were the minority browser, so they were saying, "What's this Netscape churn that's going on from release to release?" We want standards. And they helped make the standards. And they helped make them be real-world standards. Some of the personalities at Microsoft were very bright, and they would have liked to change some things. But as we got into it, they realized that any change meant that if they made the change in their implementation first, as the minority browser vendor, they might not work on a certain page. And then Netscape might renege or be late, and they'd lose market share.

Well, there's the same dynamic now, but it's Firefox and Safari that are on the minority side of it, and we're trying to gain market share. And we're interested in real-world standards. So, you think we would be super conservative.

But it's a funny thing that's happened to the Web: The Web is a mess. It's formally unsound. It's a bunch of de facto and du jure standards; browsers kind of agree, and content authors worry about the top few browsers when they write something and roll it out. You still see stuff rolled out on some of the big sites that doesn't work in Safari right away. But it's getting better. So there's this sort of intersection between the browsers and what works-like the Venn diagram and the intersection semantics. And it moves over time. And it can be moved if you put some energy into it. Web developers do want to do new things. They do want to make their life easier, and they do look at certain browsers first.

The problem is Internet Explorer-Microsoft used its monopoly and stagnated the Web. And that was huge for us because by simply persevering and focusing on the right thing-which was Phoenix instead of Firefox-and making a usable browser and just a browser, we timed the market. We were ready when the time was right. And that got us huge market share because IE was in terrible shape-the thing with security holes and pop-ups and so on.