Saturday, February 11, 2012

On CSS vendor prefixes and applying pressure where it is making most sense

If you are a web developer chances are pretty good that you have read quite o lot of tweets and blog posts on vendor prefixes lately. It all started when Daniel Glazman issued an urgent call for action. Various people have chipped in including Bruce Lawson and the Web Standards Project.

This is an expanded version from a comment I wrote on Daniel Glazman's blog.

My background

Please bear with me as I explain my background. It is important for the thoughts I have at the end.

I am an educator. I teach web development for a living and has done so for more than a decade. As a consultant for Skolverket, Sweden's national agency of education I have in fact succeeded in making standards, accessibility and best practices mandatory requirements for all teaching in the country at the secondary level (approx. senior high school in the USA/A-levels in UK).

I am participating in the Web Standards Project Education Task Force, am co-author of InterACT with Web Standards and have written material for the InterACT curriculum project. I also participated in OWEA and now the Web Education Community Group at the W3C. (Of course nothing on this blog is the official position of any such entity.)

I thoroughly believe in education!

Nevertheless I do not see how education alone can solve the problem at hand. Too much misinformation, too much marketing, too much Apple- and Google-centric journalism. Education can only alleviate the problem, never solve it.

There is a solution available that will make the problem disappear

There is in fact a solution available. One that would do more good than anything else.

Webkit must drop support of prefixed properties when there has been a standards compliant solution implemented, after a reasonable grace period. Say 6 months.

This is after all what all other browser vendors are doing right now.

This is how prefixes are supposed to work. This is the right thing! Anything else is a violation of the principle.

And yes, this will break sites, which is the exact point of this solution!!!

This is the only way to create the necessary urgency that will reach into web development sweat shops in India and China, as well as into the corporate management level in the larger companies.

There are educated web developers that simply do not have the time or the mandate to fix problems like these, because upper management do not care. They think about their own product here and now, not what's good for the web as a whole 10 or 15 years into the future.

Let's apply pressure on Apple

This is primarily not about blame, but applying pressure where it is most useful.

Let's create and uproar in the web development world strong enough to create bad will for Apple, forcing upper management to do the right thing!

Apple (and to a lesser extent Google) are sitting on the solution. Not Microsoft, not Mozilla, not Opera.

If they are getting away with acting badly it is because we are letting them, letting love for the products they make get in the way of the higher goals, letting them behave in ways that perhaps was OK when the iPhone was launched and Webkit had 0 % market share on mobile, but not changing their way according to the present situation.

Apple initially supported SOPA and PIPA – which speaks volumes about the default mind set within the company – but back peddled. So even if they have claimed that they will never remove the support for prefixes, let's create enough pressure on Apple that they will benefit from back peddling again!

Right now the pressure is applied to Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft to do the right thing, even if it will hurt their market share – and by extension their ability to fight for a free and open web in the long run. We are asking those companies to sacrifice themselves for the common good and for higher ideals.

But Apple is either loved too much for anyone to act against them – or seen as a lost cause, an unfixable problem, the IT equivalent of North Korea.

As long as the web development community is stuck in that love/hate relationship with Apple, we can never act sensibly.

Who can afford it?

Apple has just had a another record quarter and even may surpass IBM and HP in a few years.

  • Still they won't hire evangelists like Opera, Google and Mozilla that teach best practices.
  • Still they won't hire full time spec writers to get their proprietary extensions through the standardization process.

The takeaway from every Apple keynote I've heard the last years is "concentrate on the iPhone and iPad".

This message need to change!

The other main stakeholder in Webkit is Google. And their business is not shabby either. In fact it is Android and Chrome that has made Webkit the most popular browsing engine in the world.

But Google embraces open more than Apple. Google may very well be quite easily persuaded to stop supporting prefixed properties for mature technologies, in my opinion.

It is Apple that primarily needs to be pressured.

What's at stake?

Since Mozilla not only develops their browser openly, but has an open process for just about anything I stumbled upon their internal discussion about supporting -webkit- prefixes already a few months ago. First of it is quite clear that nobody within that organizations likes the idea of supporting -webkit- prefixes. Even those that support the idea do so with the utmost distress.

But except for some Gnu/Linux distros Gecko is not the default rendering engine anywhere. Opera is in a similar position. For the majority of users their is but one incentive to switch: A better user experience.

That is the bottom line.

Not ideology, but my experience as a user today, is what makes people switch.

However, since Mozilla and Opera to a high degree are value driven organizations it is easy to think that it is "their job" to keep the web open. But if right decisions comes at the cost of minuscule market shares they won't have much power to wield anyway.

And please remember that Opera and Mozilla did go down the path of ideology concerning video codecs. Would that have been possible today when their market share is falling?

It's time for Apple to pay back

Apple has never been a true champion of the open web or indeed anything open. Despite the fact that open technologies saved Apple from ruin. That, and two important gifts from Microsoft: Cash in return for stock that gave no voting power and a commitment not to stop developing Office for Mac OS.

Back in the 90's Apple struggled to develop a modern and technologically sound operating system. Copland failed. Taligent failed. And so did a bunch of other efforts.

The number one option was to buy BeOS and that deal almost came through. (Imagine the world if it had! Steve Jobs return would probably not have happened...)

However, what Apple could not develop in house they found in open source:

But also this might not have been. KHTML developers came very close to throwing in the towel and switching to Gecko.

Once again, what if they had? What if they had not persisted thanks to ideology, not business considerations?

Projects driven by ideology provided Apple with the core technologies from which they have built Mac OS X, iOS and the Safari browser.

And Apple also benefited from Firefox. It was Firefox that wrestled the web away from Microsoft. It was Firefox embracing standards that provided the opportunity to develop a browser like Safari. Remove Firefox from the equation and there would never have been a superior browsing experience on the iPhone. Those experiences were made possible from developers embracing standards thus eliminating the Microsoft monoculture.

So why should Apple help the world? Because the world first helped Apple!

Once again, we should apply pressure where pressure is due.

Unconditional love or unconditional hate bestowed upon Apple will both just make the company worse. And as for the latter (hate), did you notice that Apple actually pack peddled concerning SOPA and PIPA? Given enough pressure the company actually can abandon bad ideas.

If the web development community keeps praising Apple as if the company does nothing wrong – or at least nothing wrong that can't be excused – or if we treat Apple like a lost cause, a closed brainwashed sect incapable of change, then by all means, put all pressure on Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft.

But please acknowledge that in so doing we are forfeiting our best chance to keep the web open. Remember, this is not so much an issue of who is to blame, as it is an issue of how it could be fixed.

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