Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

LHB: Same Story, Different Tune

I'm not sure how I missed it for so long, but I'm now reading every word of the Linux Hater's Blog. It's beautiful catharsis, and I say that as someone who used to serve as President of a university LUG and who writes open source software for a living.

Like the author of LHB, I've written my share of low-level Linux stuff and shudder in horror and how backward the linux desktop still is. X11 is an abomination and configuring sound or wifi or some new-ish device...well, I still have those scars. It wasn't that long ago that I was hacking together bits of kernel patches to get an early firewire iPod (a gift from Jennifer) working on my SuSE desktop. And I was using SuSE because it usually required the least futzing of the then-available distros. Even when Linux was my desktop OS of choice – I had since climbed down from my brief flirtation with OpenBSD – it was blindingly clear to me that building my own packages was a fool's game. My time is simply worth more than that. Perhaps the most cogent point I took away from reading the LHB archives is that building professional code for the "Linux Platform" is nearly impossible, not because it can't be done, but because it costs too damned much to justify the costs. The Linux crowd seems to mis-value the immediate vs. long term costs of choice. By failing to provide a binary-friendly environment, the Linux world creates conditions only friendly to Open Source software, crippling their platform and robbing it of the capital investment that would allow it to truly compete. Many people who suffer through some Linux distro as their desktop environment no doubt see this as a good thing. I, however, need to get some work done. The LHB cogently lays out why everyone else on the planet whose time is worth more than what Amazon charges for a CPU-hour on EC2 similarly dismisses Linux for anything but servers.

The almost religious belief that choice is good ignores the inability of most people (myself included) to fully judge the long-run costs of any given technology decision. Oddly, the web browser world seems stuck in a similar position. Choice in browsers is promoted like some sort of panacea, when in fact our big problem isn't choice, it's that browsers simply can't natively attempt the feats we need them to accomplish. Smart people don't replace their browsers, they use what works until it doesn't any more. No wonder it's taken Firefox so long to gain market share. Like linux distros, browsers evolve in hodge-podge was, never quite tracing a straight line toward real progress. The refrain of "standards will save us" seems to ignore the reality that, like the LSB, the existing W3C standards are absolutely insufficient to address the problems at-hand. Both CSS3 and HTML5 are nice first-stabs, but they don't get us "there". For Linux, the LHB points out that there's zero reason to not ship "the same bits", and for the web, the issue is that content can't tell the browser "no, really, use that renderer". Interestingly, Microsoft tried to convince the world that we should version our content and the standards zealots just shot them down without really considering the consequences. Instead of making the world safe for a better web, the HTML standards geeks instead did the most powerful thing they could do to prevent it from materializing. In essence, they preserved "choice" at the expense of utility. What a waste. Seriously, if these are the deep thinkers on "our team", why not go just use Flash to build everything?

Many people have gotten worked up about Microsoft's role in killing Netscape (although they tend to minimize Netscape's role in its own demise), but ISTM that the real long-term harm done here has been to remove the renderer as a profit center. Once Microsoft set the price of the browser at "free" they effectively killed browser evolution as part of anything but an OS-based platform play (in part, to preserve their existing OS-based platform play). Interestingly, then, web-based services have routed around the difficulties of the platform to date to deliver apps that seemed well out of reach of HTML 4.01 as implemented by IE 6, but well, we're a plucky lot, aren't we? The most progress being made right now seems to be coming from a large software vendor in Cupertino with an OS-based platform play that absolutely needs the web to sparkle in order to drive adoption of their OS and hardware.

Like Linux, the web will probably lurch forward this way for the forseeable future. The standards zealots smacked down the IE team so hard on content versioning that I don't think anyone else will have the testicular fortitude to try again for a good while. It's down to the whole "vision thing", and the web standards crowd doesn't seem to have any. It's about time someone took the punch bowl away from them once and for all. The open web needs real progress too badly to stall any longer.