Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

In my last post, I observed that the action on the web in the next few years would be its development as a platform for developing and deploying applications. In fact, the fun has already started.

Web mail clients like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! mail were among the earliest, but the list has grown to include photo management apps, news feed management software and, of course, publishing software. Joel Spolsky offers perhaps the best history and explication of the move in his oustanding article “How Microsoft Lost the API War”:

Web Applications are easier to deploy because there’s no installation involved. Installing a web application means typing a URL in the address bar. Today I installed Google’s new email application by typing Alt+D, gmail, Ctrl+Enter. There are far fewer compatibility problems and problems coexisting with other software. Every user of your product is using the same version so you never have to support a mix of old versions. You can use any programming environment you want because you only have to get it up and running on your own server. Your application is automatically available at virtually every reasonable computer on the planet. Your customers’ data, too, is automatically available at virtually every reasonable computer on the planet.

The usual suspects have been rushing in to stake out their turf in the emerging ‘rich application’ market: Sun with Java Web Start, Macromedia with their Central product for Flash, Mozilla with XUL, Microsoft with Avalon/XAML and the W3C with SVG + XBL. As well, a group of developers including representatives from Mozilla, Opera and Apple have been working on an evolution of HTML under the auspices of a group called WHAT Working Group.

While the immediate impact of most of these technologies on the working web developer is minimal, over the long haul one or more of them will define the way we work for the next decade. In the near term, they will have tremendous impact on developers working on purpose-built applications inside corporations, and to a lesser degree on developers working on consumer applications as well.

The competition for defining the next generation application platform will, to a large extent, determine whether we have an open computing environment with robust competition or are chained to a proprietary platform where innovation is determined by a single entity. As is usual in computing, Microsoft has the early advantage. From the aforementioned C|Net article:

Microsoft needs only a small percentage of Internet companies to offer Windows-specific tools to have succeeded in giving the platform a leg up in a world in which all operating systems with standards-compliant Web browsers are equal.

Even so, WHATWG includes a veritable who’s who of working web and browser developers: Ian Hickson, Anne Van Kesteren, Dave Hyatt, Håkon Wium Lie, Dean Edwards, Fantasai. It’s hard to bet against that group.

There’s also a wildcard in this game: a little company called Google that has been moving more and more into web applications and has the brand recognition and user base to make waves in this space that would rock even Microsoft’s boat.

Obviously, none of these technologies is a formal standard just now — even SVG + XBL is just at the draft stage. But things are moving quickly. WHATWG has promised working implementations by the end of the year, Sun and Macromedia’s solutions are available now, and Avalon/XAML should be with us sometime in 2006.

I haven’t really sorted out who I think the winners and losers will be as yet, but my gut tells me WHATWG has as good a chance as anyone. The most significant factor for me is that they are designing their specification to degrade gracefully in older browsers, and intend to implement much of it in IE as behaviors. That avoids the ‘boil-the-sea’ problem Joel cites with regard to XAML in his ‘API War’ article, which to me is a very big deal. Even Microsoft, rightfully famous for the lengths to which they go to ensure backwards-compatibility for Windows, doesn’t have that edge in this battle. I must admit, too, that WHATWG is partly a sentimental favorite: not only do I respect and admire the drivers of the project, but they’re committed to handing off their specification to a formal standards body such as the W3C or the IETF.

Whichever technology comes out on top, the important thing to me is that it be developed openly, with input from many disparate sources, and be available for use royalty-free. Without those attributes, the web will never achieve its full potential as an applicaton platform.

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