The State of the Web 2009

This afternoon, I attended The State of the Web 2009 at Web Directions North. Below are my notes from this session.

This panel has quite the list of superstars:

John is moderating this session and is starting by asking each panelist to speak about what they believe the state of the web is.

Chris Wilson
The future of the web may be as ubiquitous as electricity. Chris has a desktop, two laptops (one 10" NetBook, one is a 13" MacBook) and an iPhone. There's a lot of difference between these devices, especially when it comes to screen size. Chris uses a number of different browsers throughout the day. The web isn't just one browser, it isn't just one platform. He's showing a slide with a browser market share graph from http://www.netapplications.com.

Many different browsers are a reality. Many different devices are a reality. Web builders need to learn to write scalable applications that run across multiple browsers, devices and environments. They need to use progressive functionality and learn the tools they have in CSS and HTML. Semantic structuring helps.

Developers need to learn to live with multiple browsers. Cross-browser interoperability will get better, but it's likely to be an issue forever. Test suites with new specifications are helping. Developers should build for browsers of today and tomorrow.

You should build the applications you want to build and then figure out how how to make them degrade gracefully on the web.

Lars Erik Bolstad
Opera Software has 600 employees in 10 countries. They've been developing Opera and other browsers since 1995. The bulk of what Opera does is based on commercial browser deliveries to OEMs around the world.

Devices, platforms and networks: they come in all shapes and sizes. Only one thing unifies them: The Web. The browser is becoming more and more important on these devices. Users are not satisfied with WAP-based content anymore, they want the same content no matter which device they're using.

Opera Mini does its processing on the server-side. This allows Opera to gather statistics. These stats show that users around the world hit the same top sites on their mobile devices as they do on their desktops. It's a one-to-one match. Opera is seeing tremendous growth in the usage of Opera Mini, both in developed countries and emerging markets.

The point: don't just develop for desktop browsers. The mobile market seems to be growing much faster. The problem is actually more in the hands of browser developers since they have to satisfy the user's desire to see the same content on mobile vs. desktop.

Opera is focusing on advancing core browser technology in three areas:

  • Web standards: CSS (webfonts, backgrounds/borders, transitions, transforms), HTML 5 (video/audio, persistent storage, drag and drop) and W3C Geolocation API and "Mobile DOM" API (access to camera, address book, calendars).
  • Performance: VEGA (vector graphics-based rendering, hardware acceleration) and CARAKAN (new JavaScript engine, native compilation). For more details, see http://my.opera.com/core.
  • Web applications: Standalone web apps, RIAs, Widgets. Gears support and Developer Tools.

Dan Connolly
The web is kinda important these days. It's a big deal. Make a mistake and 300 million dollars go away (see end of last entry about United news). One of the beauties of the web is you can easily participate as an individual. You can report bugs, write articles and be a part of many web standards groups. Most of the other systems in the world don't provide this kind of access.

Dan has been under a rock for the last 5 years working on Semantic Web stuff. Now that he's back in the game, it's incredible how much stuff is going on. He's glad there's JavaScript frameworks so he doesn't have to learn everything. The default security policies in browsers are a little rickety at this point. They allow you to download and run JavaScript from virtually any site. Caja might help to solve this. Dan believes that security will become more important and stricter to protect web users.

Scott Fegette
Scott is a Product Manager in the Web Group of Adobe. At the beginning of each year, they do heavy user research. Adobe wants people that develop content for the web to be as expressive as possible. Scott is going to give us a peak into the conversations he's had with the web community.

One of the biggest topics on people's minds is The Economy, but it's not negative as you might think. Small web designers are actually getting more business in the downturn, likely because companies are polishing their presence on the web. People are working much more distributed these days. There's a few areas that Adobe generally asks about: CSS, JavaScript, HTML (both statically and dynamically).

Frameworks are becoming more important to developers, as well as with clients. They've even seen some clients demand certain frameworks. Two years ago, when Adobe talked to small design shops and agencies, most web sites were built statically. Now they're developing with frameworks like WordPress. Out of 60 folks they talked to, only 2 were using static systems and not CMSes.

In the JavaScript frameworks arena, jQuery is the dominant leader. Shops are starting to use CSS frameworks as well. The only one Scott mentioned was Reset. Design is becoming a technical discipline and Adobe is calling this Stateful Design. WYSIWIG is definitely dying and designers aren't developing with visual tools.

The kind of projects that people are working on has changed a lot. Many shops are being asked to do work on mobile development. The iPhone has done wonders for the industry in raising the awareness of what a mobile device can do.

The other big investments for Adobe is RIAs and AIR. Ajax has matured enough that it can now compete with proprietary plugins like Flash. The reason for AIR is to allow web developers to use their skills to develop desktop applications. Flash and Flex are often overkill for browser-based applications, but they do often handle video and audio better than Ajax applications.

Mike (TM) Smith
Mike is also known as the "W3C HTML jackass". Mike thinks the state of the web is that it's a mess in a lot of ways. If you don't believe him, ask Doug Crockford. Most of this stuff is going to remain a mess for the next 20 years, unless another genius like Tim Berners-Lee comes along and invents something new. However, the good part about it being a mess is that we all have jobs.

One of the biggest things they're trying to do with HTML 5 is not breaking backward compatibility. Other working groups at the W3C don't share this philosophy, hence the reason they don't have browser vendors participating. Many of the ideas for HTML 5 game from Gears and Ajax Framework developers like John Resig. All this will make things less messy, especially with the help of browser vendors.

Developers like the ubiquitous web and are pushing the mobile web. Mike thinks everyone just needs to get a life (big applause). For mobile, SVG has already been a big success. You will see significant great things with SVN happen in major browsers by next fall. If you're a web developer, you should spend some time experiment with SVG. It will payoff for you. If it doesn't pay off for you and you see Mike next year at Web Directions North, you can punch him in the face.

Location-aware applications will be big as well. Browser vendors are implementing the Geo Location API. It's implemented in Opera, Firefox, WebKit and Gears. Video on the web will be significant as well. The SVG working group pioneered video support into standards, before HTML 5. Many of the problems they face are related to video codecs. The only way to solve the problems with video on the web is with money and lawyers. Very specifically, there's no royalty-free codec for video. This is nothing that standards bodies can solve. The most promising is that Sun Microsystems is developing an open codec and spending money to make sure they're not infringing on patents.

Not only is the HTML Working Group improving markup in HTML, they're also working on coming up with new APIs that give you access to features. If you have ideas that aren't included in HTML 5, the group is definitely interested in hearing about them.

After each panelist talked, John asked them questions about what's the biggest thing they'd like to see implemented by everyone (open video codec, geo location api were the winners). Mike also did some complaining about XML and how broken it is because there's no failure mechanism. There was some audience banter with Chris about SVG in IE.

Conclusion
This was a very interesting session, especially to hear from the people who are building/supporting the future of the web. I liked Scott's talk on what Adobe's hearing from their users. I also liked hearing Mike (TM)'s opinionated thoughts on XML and his non-marketing approach to most everything related to the web. Lars from Opera had a marketing-ish presentation, but it was nevertheless interesting to hear what Opera's working on. Good stuff.

Posted in The Web at Feb 04 2009, 06:05:38 PM MST 8 Comments

Changes in the Languages of the Web with Dan Connolly

Web Directions North Logo Web Directions is held in Australia and Japan and now the US. A few months ago, they were a bit hesitant about doing it in Denver in the middle of winter. However, they've discovered our best-kept secret: it's beautiful and sunny all week. People are attending this conference from all around the world.

Dan Connolly is the keynote speaker. He's played some very important roles, such as Chairmain of the HTML Working Group during HTML 4. He's also a research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and a member of the technical staff at the W3C.

Dan's talk is titled Changes in the Languages of the Web and you can view it online at http://www.w3.org/2009/Talks/02wdn/slides.

Web Languages are like languages of the world. Like programming languages, web languages are artificial. Web-native languages are PHP and JavaScript. A Web Language is influenced by natural languages but are artificial. Learning languages is like reading music. With music, most learn from good ol' fashion sheet music. Nowadays, many are learning to read music from Rock Band (the game).

Is there a web language for music? It's not mp3/ogg and it's not Apple's GarageBand. ABC music notation is close and fake-book style cords mostly works. The problem is often these sites and specifications disappear because copyright holders come and scare them away.

Technology deployment rides on the practice of sharing media and culture. Open standards preserve freedom to tinker and supports cultural heritage. Lawrence Lessig at OSCON 2002:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Our is less and less a free society.

Lastly, Lawrence asked what have you done about it?

In 1991, some places would fire you for looking at code from the Net. At the time, Dan worked at Convex, who encouraged participation in Free Software. Convex did business with HP; HP used SGML; HTML was SGML (almost). When Dan read about the World Wide Web from Tim Berners-Lee, he had an excuse to look at HTML as part of his day job.

Computer Science students and hackers learn BNF and parse trees. SGML is a little funny looking, but works mostly like BNF. Feedback loop:

  1. Draft a DTD
  2. Run some tests, ask the computer if it matches the test cases
  3. Discover an issue; repeat

While Dan was at Hal in Austin in 1994, and adding HTML support in products, he:

  • Asked other HTML Working Group members to try James Clark's sgmls parser
  • Not many of them were in the habit of building software from source
  • Mark Gaither and Dan installed sgmls as a CGI service
  • Feedback loops works over the Web!

Dan was first the editor and then the chair of the standardization of HTML 4. HTML's standardization timeline:

  • November 1995: HTML 2.0
  • January 1997: HTML 3.2
  • December 1997: HTML 4.0
  • December 199: HTML 4.0.1

Browser marketplace explodes and then stagnates. Early 1990's - lots of little projects. In 1995, Netscape Navigator IPO rewrites the business books. In the late 90's IE takes over Netscape. After HTML, Dan started working on other stuff: Feb 98 (XML 1.0), Jan 99 (Namespaces in XML), Jan 00 (XHTML 1.0), Feb 04 (RDF and OWL), Apr 06 (SPARQL) and Sep 2007 (GRDDL).

W3C fostered many of the technologies of Ajax and Web 2.0:

  • HTML, CSS, DOM, XML from W3C circa 2000
  • JavaScript from Netscape, ECMA in 1995
  • XMLHttpRequest from Microsoft in 1999

W3C's efforts since then lacked clear deployment paths.

XHTML is not the solution to a problem that concerns anybody except the guys who have to write parsers that convert markup into DOM trees. It turns out that XHTML put the validation on the wrong end of the network. It turned out that the market didn't put much value in a document delivery system that could decide to not display the document because there was an unrecognized attribute on an invisible meta tag.
-- Doug Crockford Jan 2008

The web isn't just for computer geeks anymore. From The Future of Information by Ted Nelson in 1997:

The software world currently corresponds to the Pre-Director stage in movie-making (1893-1904). During those years, when short films were already being shown in theaters, the job of making the movie was given to the cameraman - because he knew how to work the equipment.

That is how it is with software today. Today's software designers are those who only understand the technicalities, and not - with rare exceptions - those who understand how to integrate the presentation of ideas to the mind and heart.

The Web facilitates a shift from mass media to participatory culture. Worth watching: An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube by Michael Wesch and the Digital Ethnography Working Group.

The W3C HTML Working Group charted in March 2007 and ended up with hundreds of participants (most prior working groups had 20-30 people). In November 2007, there was an HTML WG meeting at W3C Technical Plenary and was very much an unconference. The HTML 5 Working draft was published in January 2008. Goals for HTML 5:

  • Off-the-shelf parsers and tools for reading web pages like browsers do, including tag soup
  • Modern test materials
  • Standardize successful experiments in the Web Applications platform to balance the attraction of proprietary approaches:
    • <video>, <audio>
    • scripting details, security policies
    • offline storage

HTML 5 co-chairs: Chris Wilson (Microsoft) and Sam Ruby (IBM) with W3C staff support from Mike Smith and Dan Connolly.

Some ideas from the CSS validator roadmap:

  • JavaScript CSS parser
  • Support for CSS 2.1 forward-compatible grammar
  • Integrate test-result data showing browser support

The browser marketplace is moving again.

How about authors? How do they feel about HTML 5? Two days ago, Dan received support from Adobe to work on HTML 5 materials for authors.

Design Principles Last Through Change. From Zeldman on Twitter: Client who saves $5K buying cut-rate non-semantic HTML will later spend $25K on SEO consultant to compensate.

There's still something to the nothing behind XHTML+CSS Web Design. Kudos to whoever designed the Kansas Tax web site (Dan is from Kansas City).

Sharing data in documents is one of the original goals of the WWW. Dan has been investing some of his own time into microformats.

Tantek Çelik in June 2006: "XML formats in the long run are not better than propriety binary formats."

  • XML, both in technology (namespaces...) and as a "technical culture" is too biased towards Tower of Babel outcomes.
  • A few XML formats may survive and converge (RSS, maybe Atom).
  • But for now, XHTML is the only longterm reliable XML format that has more to do with it being based on HTML than it being XML.

And if longevity is not a goal, try JSON - it's yummy.

Microformats are not just technical ideas, but it's something that you can actually use in your life. XSPF - what if media players had used an XHTML dialect a la hMedia. RSS and hAtom - will feed readers grow native support for hAtom? Will calendar subscription clients grow native support for hCalendar? The process and the technology of microformats provide an 80% solution for global scale problems.

The Personal Information Disaster: The bane of my existence is doing things I know the computer could do for me. -- The XML Revolution, Nature Web Matters Oct 1998.

Let's find ways to make it cost-effective record and share knowledge formally, i.e. so that computers can manipulate it. How great would it be if your kid's soccer coach could distribute a schedule that would feed into everyone's calendaring system?

Flickr, Facebook and Twitter demonstrate the attraction of hosted services. Identi.ca supports federation (OpenMicroBlogging). Instant Messaging is much like e-mail used to be, where you couldn't e-mail folks that used a different provider.

Be careful not to delegate too much to machines!

  • A United Airlines near-bankruptcy item from 2002 appeared as 2008 news via Google News
  • Syndication continued up to a Bloomberg news flash.
  • UAL stock cratered from $12 to $3 ($1.14 billion in market cap).
  • The stock recovered within the day to $10 (down $300M in market cap)

Something to keep an eye on - SEC Interactive DATA and XBRL. Three dozen companies, representing more than $1 trillion of market value, have joined the SEC's test group. Have been working on this since 2005.

Conclusion
The balance between proprietary risk/reward and open standards is delicate. Media independence is more important than ever as mobile emerges. When content doesn't match specs, changing browsers is cheap compared to changing all the content, authors. Web technology is deeply intertwingled with social, economic context.

I enjoyed Dan's talk. He's obviously a smart guy and has been involved with the web since before it even existed. More than anything, I like the conference location. It's 1/2 block from my office and has excellent views. I hope to return for The State of the Web 2009 later this afternoon.

Posted in The Web at Feb 04 2009, 11:34:54 AM MST 3 Comments