The Messy, Working Web

The Web is a mess; it's an unsound and broken hodgepodge of standards, tools and browsers that all kinda work together, except of course when they don't. This isn't an uncommon position. Everyone from major software vendors to government figures to standards bodies has at one time or another held this opinion. In Daryl Taft's interview with Brendan Eich of Mozilla, Eich makes pretty much this exact point about the Web being a mess. So we can all agree that the Web is a broken mess, to which I think we should all also add that this is also a good thing, because if the Web weren't such a mess, it probably wouldn't exist in anything like the powerful and disruptive form that it has today. Think about it. When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web he broke many of the classic rules of scripting and development. The Web is supremely flexible (aka messy), highly forgiving of bad links, lousy code and incompatible applications (aka broken), and compatible with a wide variety of browsers, operating systems and applications (formally unsound). And this is why the Web succeeded where similar efforts had failed.

Jim RapozaThe Web is a mess; it's an unsound and broken hodgepodge of standards, tools and browsers that all kinda work together, except of course when they don't. This isn't an uncommon position. Everyone from major software vendors to government figures to standards bodies has at one time or another held this opinion. In Daryl Taft's interview with Brendan Eich of Mozilla, Eich makes pretty much this exact point about the Web being a mess. So we can all agree that the Web is a broken mess, to which I think we should all also add that this is also a good thing, because if the Web weren't such a mess, it probably wouldn't exist in anything like the powerful and disruptive form that it has today. Think about it. When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web he broke many of the classic rules of scripting and development. The Web is supremely flexible (aka messy), highly forgiving of bad links, lousy code and incompatible applications (aka broken), and compatible with a wide variety of browsers, operating systems and applications (formally unsound). And this is why the Web succeeded where similar efforts had failed. Of course, while this messy structure of the Web has made possible its success and growth, it has also made it possible for powerful companies and interests to attempt to game the system to their own advantage. Specifically, much of Eich's concern about the Web centers around Microsoft and its efforts to control technologies and standards. It wasn't all that long ago that Internet Explorer 6 dominated the browser landscape to such a degree that most sites and Web applications had no problem being IE-only. This in turn led to some serious stagnation when it came to interesting Web technologies. But thanks to the growth in popularity of Firefox, along with new Web development technologies such as AJAX that made it possible to create interactive Web applications that ran on any browser, we've seen lots of innovation in Web applications and systems in recent years. However, that doesn't mean we couldn't see a return to the old days of one vendor dominating the Web and slowing the adoption of new standards and technologies. One of Eich's main concerns in the interview is the adoption of JavaScript 2 and whether Microsoft will properly support it in Internet Explorer 8. There is some concern that JavaScript 2, which is supported by multiple groups, including Mozilla and Adobe, will be targeted by Microsoft as a threat to its Silverlight technology, as both can be used to create rich applications. This is a definite concern, though I think Silverlight needs to worry more about even challenging Adobe Flash slightly before it worries about JavaScript. Eich also brings up an interesting and in many ways a classic Web solution to the problem. The ScreamingMonkey project at Mozilla is centered on building a virtual run-time that can be installed on systems to allow IE systems to support JavaScript 2 even if Microsoft doesn't build that support itself. And if Adobe decides to build this support into Flash it could be quickly installed onto many systems. We'll see if this solution works, or is even needed. I think at least in this area that the Web will be safe. The other lesson of IE 6 was that, despite its massive dominance, once it became a problem the Web and its users and developers found a way to get around that problem. It can sometimes be messy, but it works.