That Old-Skool Smell

One of the things that the various (grumpy) posts covering the recent W3C TAG / webdev meetup here in London last month brought back to mind for me was a conversation that happened in the TAG meeting about the ways that the W3C can (or can’t) facilitate discussion between webdevs, browser vendors, and “standards people”.

The way the W3C has usually done this is via workshops. Here’s an examplar from last year. The “how to participate” link is particularly telling:

Position papers are required to be eligible to participate in this workshop. Organizations or individuals wishing to attend must submit a position paper explaining their perspectives on a workshop topic of their choice no later than 01 July 2013. Participants should have an active interest in the area selected, ensuring other workshop attendees will benefit from the topic and their presence.

Position papers should:

  • Explain the participant’s perspective on the topic of the Workshop
  • Explain their viewpoint
  • Include concrete examples of their suggestions

Refer to the position papers submitted for a similar W3C workshop to see what a position paper generally implies.

It is necessary to submit a position paper for review by the Program Committee. If your position paper is selected by the Program Committee, you will receive a workshop invitation and registration link. Please see Section “Important dates” for paper submission and registration deadlines.

ZOMGWTFBBQ. If the idea is that the W3C should be a salon for academic debate, this process fits well. If, on the other hand, the workshop is meant to create sort of “interested stakeholders collaborating on a hard problem” environment that, e.g., Andrew Betts from FT Labs and other have helped to create around the offline problem (blog post on that shortly, I promise), this might be exactly the wrong way to do it.

But it’s easy to see how you get to this sort of scary-sounding process: to keep gawkers from gumming up the works it’s necessary to create a (low) barrier to entry. Preferably one that looks higher than it really is. Else, the thinking goes, the event will devolve into yet-another-tech-meetup; draining the discussions of the urgency and focus that only arise when people invested in a problem are able to discus it deeply without distraction. The position paper and selection process might fill the void — particularly if you don’t trust yourself enough to know who the “right people” to have in the room might be. Or perhaps you have substantial research funding and want academic participants to feel at home; after all, this is the sort of process that’s entirely natural in the research setting. Or it could be simple momentum: this is the way the W3C has always attempted to facilitiate and nobody has said “it’s not working” loudly enough to get anything to change.

So let me, then, be the first: it’s not working.

Time, money, and effort is being wasted. The workshop model, as currently formulated, is tone-deaf. It rarely gets the right people in the room.

Replacements for this model will suffer many criticisms: you could easily claim that the FT and Google-hosted offline meetings weren’t “open”. Fair. But they have produced results, much the way side-line and hallway-track meetings about other topics have similarly been productive in other areas.

The best model the W3C has deployed thus far has been the un-conference model used at TPAC ’11 and ’12, due largely to the involvement of Tantek Çelik. That has worked because many of the “right people” are already there, although, in many cases, not enough. And it’s worth saying that this has usually been an order-of-magnitude less productive than the private meetings I’ve been a part of at FT, Mozilla, Google, and other places. Those meetings have been convened by invested community members trying to find solutions, and they have been organized around explicit invites. It’s the proverbial smoke-filled room, except nobody smokes (at least in the room), nobody wears suits, and there’s no formal agenda. Just people working hard to catalog problems and design solutions in a small group of people who represent broader interests…and it works.

The W3C, as an organization, needs to be relevant to the concerns of web developers and the browser vendors who deliver solutions to their problems, and that to do that it must speak their language. Time for the academic patina to pass into history. The W3C’s one and only distinguishing characteristic is that some people still believe that it can be a good facilitator for evolving the real, actual, valuable web. Workshops aren’t working and need to be replaced with something better. Either the W3C can do that or we will continue to do it “out here”, and I don’t think anyone really wants that.

Update: A couple of insightful comments via twitter:

Sylvain nails one of the big disconnects for me: it’s not about format, it’s about who is “convening” the discussion. Andrew Betts has done an amazing job inviting the right people, and in the unconference style format, you need a strong moderator to help pull out the wheat from the chaff. In both cases, we’ve got examples where “local knowledge” of the people and the problems is the key to making gatherings productive. And the W3C process doesn’t start with that assumption.

Next:

I think this is right. A broad scope tends to lead to these sorts of big workshop things that could cover lots of ground…but often don’t lead to much. This is another axis to judge the workshop format on, and I’m not sure I could tell you what the hoped-for outcomes of workshops are that matter to devs, implementers, and the standards process. I’d like to hear from W3C AC reps and staff who think it is working, though.

Thoughts On A Job Done

Most of the time, when a bit of software you work on floats out of your life and into the collective past, there’s a sense of mourning. But that’s not how I feel about Chrome Frame.

The anodyne official blog post noting the retirement six months hence isn’t the end of something good, it’s the acknowledgement that we’re where we wanted to be. Maybe not all of us, but enough to credibly say that the tide has turned. The trend lines are more than hopeful, and in 6 months any lingering controversy over this looks like it’ll be moot. Windows XP is dying, IE 6 & 7 are echoes of their former menace, and IE 8 is finally going the same way. Most of the world’s users are now at the front of the pack where new browser releases are being delivered without friction thanks to auto-update. The evergreen bit of the web is expanding, and the whole platform is now improving as a result. This is the world we hoped to enable when Chrome Frame was first taking form.

I joined Google in December ’08 expressly because it’s the sort of company that could do something like Chrome Frame and not screw it up by making it an attention hogging nuisance of a toolbar or a trojan-horse for some other, more “on brand” product. GCF has never been that, not because that instinct is somehow missing from people that make it through the hiring process; no, GCF has always been a loss-maker and a poor brand ambassador because management accepted that what is good for the web is good for Google. Acting in that long-term interest is just the next logical step.

Truth be told, we weren’t even the right folks for the job. We were just the only ones both willing and able to do it. MSFT has the freaking source code for IE and Windows. There was always grim joking on the team that they could have put GCF together in a weekend, whereas it took us more than a year and change to make it truly stable. Honestly, if I thought MSFT was the sort of place that would have done something purely good for the web like GCF, I probably would have applied there instead. But in ’08, the odds of that looked slim.

Having run the idea for something like Chrome Frame past one of the core IE team engineers at MIX that year, the response I got was “oh, you’re some kind of a dreamer…a visionary”. I automatically associate the word “visionary” with “time-wasting wanker”, so that was 0 for 2 on the positive adjective front. And discussions with others were roughly on par. Worse, when the IE team did want to enable a cleaner break with legacy via the X-UA-Compatible flag, the web standards community flipped out in a bout of mind-blowing shortsightedness…and MSFT capitulated. Score 1 for standards, -1 for progress.

For me, personally, this has never been about browsers and vendors and all the politics wrapped up in those words: it has been about making the web platform better. To do that means reckoning with the problem from the web-developer perspective: any single vendor only ships a part of the platform that webdevs perceive.

Web developers don’t view a single browser, or a single version of a browser that’s on hundreds of millions of devices as a platform. Compared to the limited reach of “native” platforms, it seems head-scratching at first, but the promise of the web has always been universal access to content, and web developers view the full set of browsers that make up the majority of use as their platform. That virtue that both makes the web the survivable, accessible, universal platform that can’t be replaced as well as the frustrating, slow, uneven development experience that so many complain about.

The only way to ensure that web developers see the platform improving is to make sure that the trailing edge is moving forward as fast as the leading edge. The oldest cars and power plants are exponentially worse polluters than the most modern ones; if you want to do the most for the world, get the clunkers off the road and put scrubbers on those power plants. Getting clunkers off the road is what upgrade campaigns are, and GCF has been a scrubber.

All power plants, no matter how well scrubbed, must eventually be retired. The trend is now clear: the job coming to a close. Most of the world’s desktop users are now on evergreen browsers, and with the final death of WindowsXP in sight, the rest are on the way out. Webdevs no longer face a single continuous slope of pain. We can consider legacy browsers as the sort of thing we should be building fallback experiences for, not first-class experiences. The goal of making content universally accessible doesn’t require serving the exact same experience to everyone. That’s what has always made the web great, and now’s the time for non-evergreen browsers to take their place in the fallback bucket, no longer looming large as our biggest collective worry.

I’m proud to be a small part of the team that made Chrome Frame happen, and I’m grateful to Google for having given me the chance to do something truly good for the web.

s/Future/Promise/g

One of the things I’ve poured myself into this year — with a merry band of contributors including Domenic Denicola, Anne van Kesteren, Jake Archibald, Mark Miller, Erik Arvidsson, and many others — has been a design for Promises that DOM and JS can both adopt.

There’s a (very) long history of Promises, Deferreds, and various other Promise-ish things in JS which I won’t bore you with here except to note that there are very few client-side libraries which don’t include such a thing and use it as a core idiom for dealing with async behvaior (e.g., XHR). jQuery, Dojo, Q, WinJS, Cujo, Closure, YUI, Ember (via RSVP), and all the rest use this style of contract pervasively and have for years. In fact, it’s so common that Domenic Denicola and others have gone as far to rustle up a community standard for how they should interop under the banner of Promises/A+. The major libraries are coalescing around that contract and so it seems time, finally, to make our biggest and most important library — DOM — savvy to them too.

The recent history starts (arbitrarily) a couple of years ago and ends 2 weeks ago. In that time, a single design has evolved that not only DOM could get behind, but also which TC39 has agreed in principle to endorse and support going forward, thanks in large part to Mark Miller’s analysis of the competing styles of use which proves strongly that the A+-compatible API we’ve designed need not upset anybody’s applecart.

The TC39 meeting was a key turning point: up until 2 weeks ago, DOM had a version of this design under the name Future. I made the decision to not use the name Promise for that work because without TC39’s agreement on a design, the DOM variant could at some point find itself both camping on a global name and disagreeing with JS about semantics or naming of particular APIs. That sort of thing might have lead to the suspicion by DOM folks that TC39 was out of touch and slow, and by TC39 that DOM rushed in like fools into a space that’s pretty clearly something the std lib should include (even if it couldn’t do so for multiple years due to publication and spec timing issues).

Meanwhile, in the background, several DOM APIs have started to adopt Futu…er…Promises, notably Web Crypto and Web MIDI. There has also been lively discussion about other APIs that can benefit from moving to a standard mechanism for describing async operations.

It seems, in each individual case, like this shouldn’t be such a big deal. Some APIs have callbacks, some use events…what’s the fuss?

The big reason to spend months of my life on this problem, and to harass other very busy people to do the same, is to me the core value of web standards: when they’re working well, they create a uniform surface area that describes a coherent platform. We are the beneficiaries of this uniformity today regarding events, and they are a major piece of the design language which DOM API authors can reliably use to help describe bits of their design. Promises, like Events, are yet another tool in the box that DOM APIs authors can use, and thanks to sane constructors and the ability to subclass built into the design, it’s possible for end-user code to eventually put down the custom implementations of Promise-like things and simply rely on the platform to do what platforms should do: make cheap and easy what previously was common but expensive.

As of this week, the WHATWG DOM spec has changed its naming to reflect the consensus design, substituting Promise for Future, renaming accept() to fulfill(), and removing a few of the methods that didn’t have consensus or were agreed to be unnecessary in a 1.0.

Thanks to this broad consensus over the design, both Mozilla and Google have begun to implement Promises in our respective engines. Further, the W3C TAG agreed at last week’s meeting to recommend to spec authors that they adopt Promises for asynchronous, single-valued operations. This is also great news because the TAG has gone from being a body which is largely reactive to one that has begun to become pro-active, taking a more active role in API oversight and integration across Working Groups to help ensure the coherence of the overall platform’s architecture and design.

The job of moving many of today’s APIs which use ad-hoc callback systems or vend Promise-like-but-not-quite objects is far from over, much the way providing constructors for DOM operations is a work in progress…but I have many reasons to hope, not least of all because folks like Mark, Tab, Domenic, Yehuda, and Anne are working together in good faith to help make it so.

This, then, is how we can collectively add new primitive types to the platform: begin with community and evidence, build consensus around a design slowly (starting with the key stakeholders), and eventually work across the entire platform to integrate these primitives pervasively.

It takes people who are willing to put down an us-vs-them perspective and collaborate honestly and openly to make it happen, but moving the web forward always does. Promises are budding proof that such a thing isn’t beyond our institutions, vendors, and platform leaders to do. Collaboration across the spectrum from users, to spec organizations, to vendors can happen. The platform can be reformed and rationalized, and even the most recalcitrant of DOM spec authors are willing to listen when presented with evidence that their APIs aren’t idiomatic or could be improved to help make the commons better, even when it comes at some risk and cost to their own APIs.

Comments.

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