Infrequently Noted

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

Reforming the W3C TAG

And so it has come to pass that W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) elections are afoot. Nominations have ended and the candidates have been announced. There are four seats open and nine candidates running, so it's worth understanding why anyone should vote for the reformers (myself, Yehuda Katz, Anne van Kesteren, Peter Linss, and Marcos Caceres). For general background, see my previous post. Here I'll include more specifics, so if that sounds boring, here's a kitten!

After doing much reading of TAG meeting minutes, f2f notes, issues, delivered products, and findings I've come to a sobering conclusion: the TAG isn’t focused on eliminating the biggest sources of developer pain today. Now, you can argue that this might not be their job, but I won't agree. It's the TAGs job to help ensure the health of the platform, both for publishers and search engines, but also for authors. And the web as a platform is in some real trouble today.

There doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency in the TAG about the corrosive effects of poor design and integration on the overall usability and health of the system. The Web to the TAG, as I can understand it through the meeting minutes and notes, is a collection of documents that represent internally-referential collections of data which are are linked to other documents, not a series of applications that are attempting ever more impressive feats of richness on a platform that stymies them every time you hit one of the seams. In reality it is (aspirationally) both things but the very real tensions between them don't appear in the TAG's work, leading me to believe that it doesn't comprehend the latter aspect of web development today and what that means for the future health and viability of the platform.

I drone on and on and on about layering because explaining each bit of the platform in terms of the one below it relieves much of the tension created by disconnected declarative forms and APIs. This matters because in today's web when you go ever so slightly off the path paved by a spec's use-cases, the drop-off is impossibly steep, and the only way to keep from risking life-threatening abstraction level transitions is to flood the entire canyon with JavaScript and hope you can still swim in the resulting inland sea of complexity. This is what our biggest, "best" webapps do today, relying on ENORMOUS piles of JavaScript that largely serve to re-create what browsers already do in the hopes of marginally extending that capability. It's simply nuts, but the TAG doesn't seem to acknowledge the threat this poses to everything it holds dear: linking, declarative forms, data...it's all about to be lost beneath the waves, and because the TAG doesn't understand the growing importance of JS, it seemingly doesn't see the threat. Declarative forms disappear first beneath imperatively-delivered complexity; lingua-franca APIs next. Without ways of getting what your app needs while keeping one foot on the declarative path, app developers do what they must; declarative data and relationships become "nice to haves" not "the way you do it". Layering provides easy steps between the levels of abstraction, avoiding the need to re-create what the platform was already doing for you along with whatever custom thing you need -- and it's not the TAG's current agenda.

If elected, I will work to fix that. The TAG is the right group to formulate and articulate a theory of good layering in the web platform's architecture and it's the only group at the W3C whose mission is to help spec authors wrestle with large-scale design and integration problems like this. My background is in apps, and JS, and browsers, and I work at one of the few places deeply invested in ensuring that we maintain a healthy, declarative web for the future. I care tremendously about the viability of the largely-declarative web. Through my work with Dimitry Glazkov and many others on Web Components I've done as much as anyone in the last decade to help build a bridge between the JS and declarative worlds. Dimitry and I created and led the team here at Google that have put Shadow DOM, CSS Variables, Custom Elements, Mutation Observers (and Object.observe) into specs and on the platform agenda, all with the explicit goal of creating better layering; explaining the magic in today's platform and drawing connections between the bits that had none before. And I think we need to keep building more of those bridges, but it's hard when W3C culture views that agenda with suspicion. Why would any WG concern itself with integration with specs outside its charter? It's the TAGs job to inject that global perspective. I believe the TAG should pursue the following work as a way of filling its charter:

If that sounds like meaningful progress to you, I'd appreciate your organization's vote; along with your consideration to vote for my fellow reformers: Yehuda Katz, Anne van Kesteren, Peter Linss, and Marcos Cáceres. AC reps for each organization can vote here and have 4 votes to allocate in this election. Voting closes near the end of the month, and it's also holiday season, so if you work at a member organization and aren't the AC rep, please, find out who that person in your organization is and make sure they vote. The TAG can't fix the web or the W3C, but I believe that with the right people involved it can do a lot more to help the well-intentioned people who are hard at work in the WGs to build in smarter ways that pay all of us back in the long run.

Origin(al) Sins

Video is now up from a talk I gave in October at OWASP's AppSec USA conference -- something of a departure from my usual speil:

Origin(al) Sins - Alex Russell from OWASP AppSec USA

I made some pretty glaring errors in the talk: you can't combine sandboxing with seamlessness for cross-origin content. It's something I'm hoping we can improve on in the browsers/specs, but it's not the current state of play. I also failed to mention that CSP is Mozilla's brain-child and they deserve huge credit for pushing it down the field. Similarly, I failed to mention that IE 10's CSP support is actually quite shite, supporting only the sandbox directive. Lastly, my objections to the OCAP worldview may have been oblique so, before the flames arrive in the comments, let me try again:

I think that you'll always end up with some variant of "object capabilities", if only through wrapper objects that hide protocol details. The OCAP world calls these "membranes" for particularly high-fidelity versions of this. When you have a word for it, it's probably common. Vending objects that represent capabilities is natural at some level, but I strongly resist the urge to take the pun too far. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of capabilities as the model for building apps that have real security by default; and I hope their pervasive use combined with more restrictive, separated execution contexts creates the world we all want to be in. My only quibble is on the developer ergonomics front. OCAP encourages the (perhaps naive) programmer to build many things inside the same "vat" (heap, context, whatever), leading to brittleness whereas protocols and true sandboxing can create secure boundaries that, importantly, look like boundaries. Systems that provide big "this is a security boundary!" disclaimers on their APIs while making it hard to screw them up stand a better chance of weathering the storms of human imperfection. Can you do OCAP right? Sure, it's possible, but as I argue in the talk, betting on humans to do the right thing is eventually and inevitably a loser. So I favor large, knobby interfaces over which you can send messages and no more. Wrap 'em up with an RPC layer...cool...whatever. But design a protocol with side-effects that are straight-forward to reason about on both sides -- not an object which can be easily intertwined with many others in a dense graph -- and you've got my vote. I'm even in favor of building those protocols and then wrapping them with easier-to-use APIs (call it "CAP->O", if you will), but eliding the step of a large boundary over which you can only send data, and making it relatively hard to cross? Nah, I'll be over here with the easy-to-reason about solutions that don't make my small-ish brain melt, thanks.

Also, I wasn't sure to what extent Doug was joking about "incompetent" programmers in his talk, so our disagreements may not be what they seem. Caveat emptor.

Thanks to Jeremiah and the other organizers for taking a risk and inviting someone who's been out of the security space for so long to give a talk. I promise to them that should they be so foolish in the future, I'll be sure to duck out and get one of my betters on the Chrome Security Team to stand in instead ;-)

Layers of Confusion

I missed a Plus post by Ian Hickson back from August but I saw it today through the magic of the twitters. It contains quite a lot to quibble about, but I want to home in on something he wrote in the comments in response to Will Sargent, RE: one of my posts on layering in the platform:

...I don't really share his vision. I think JS is an important part of the Web, but I don't see it as any more core to the Web than CSS, HTML, the DOM APIs, HTTP, etc. Most of the proposals I've seen to take JS and build a platform on it tend to fall down on #3, #4, and #5. In particular, I think fundamentally #3 and #4 basically force the platform to have a declarative part (the declarative XAML part of .NET is how it managed to address #4, for instance, and the declarative design of XHTML2 and RDF are how they manage to address #3). That doesn't have to mean that the code part is a secondary part, though. I think the Web has reached a point where you can think of the DOM as the core, with JS and the HTML syntax layered atop that (much like how in .NET there's objects that can be represented in XAML or generated from C#), which puts the JS part on par with the HTML part in terms of importance to the platform.

This is either me not articulating my "vision" clearly, Hixie mis-understanding my point(s), or some combination thereof. So I'll try again in 4 paragraphs:

I make no claims about the relative importance of HTML, CSS, JS, DOM or any of the rest. It honestly feels silly to talk about the platform that way. I argue something very, very different: HTML, DOM, and (to a lesser extent) CSS should all conceptually bottom out at JS. I'm not saying "go write a browser in JS"...that's also non-sequitur. JS must, of course, appeal in turn to C/C++ so a "browser written in JS" would need privileged APIs provided by C/C++ or something lower level.

What I'm saying is something very direct: there's no other ubiquitous programming language for the web. JS is the only game in town. As a result, when we describe imperative behavior in prose (as the HTML5 spec does) that behavior could, in theory, be implemented in JS (or some sub/super-set). Since HTML, DOM, and CSS aren't Turing-complete, they naturally belong at a "higher level" in the web platform stack.

Now, all of this sounds dangerously academic and perhaps nuts...but consider that we have to expose APIs for nearly all of this stuff. Whenever we add something to HTML, CSS, etc., it always comes with some sort of API. Now, that could be a good API, or it could be an obtuse turn around the parser after some terrible string concatenation.

I'm claiming that you get better APIs when you design your imperative explanation of the declarative stuff -- which you MUST do for specs to be sane -- in JS. This means designing new APIs to help you accomplish the task at hand as you go. Doing it that way ends you up with the types, APIs, and security boundaries you're going to need in the end anyway. Doing it the other way, patching crap onto the side later without explaining how the declarative stuff "works", just leads to the pain and constant need for case-by-case revision that we see in today's web APIs.

That's the whole argument in 4 'grafs. It's subtle, but I hope not terribly controversial. Importantly, nothing about it demands giving up on any of Hixie's 5 arguments. He can keep 'em all and still get a well-layered platform. We've got enough examples of doing it wrong under our belt to see how painful the badly-layered web is today. We can end this insanity -- not by claiming that any part of the platform is "more important" -- by explaining the platform in layers, higher levels in terms of the lower levels.

Bits and Remainders

I've been working on an epically-long blog post on the Offline problem for something like two months now and it's still not done. That's not so much to tease as warn; Frances thinks I should post it in installments. It's that long.

As a result of that ever-growing design/analysis/writing hairball, I haven't blogged when I might have. Videos of some of my recent talks are now up, including my Fronteers closing talk:

Alex Russell | The Web Platform & the Process of Progress | Fronteers 2012 from Fronteers

Special thanks to Peter and the Fronteers volunteers for managing to find a pink boozy cake (a culinary revelation!), simultaneously meeting my only (joke) demand as a speaker and trolling me in person. WELL PLAYED.

Also, give the rest of the excellent talks a gander over on Vimeo . Personal favorites of mine include the ever-brillaint Phil Hawksworth, Marcin Wichary's stunning Doodles talk, Lea Verou, and Rebecca Murphey....actually, there were too many to list. Seriously, go check it out.

I also recently spoke at the London Ajax User's Group, and video is also available (but not embeddable). Apologies for both videos including a lot of me rambling. I need to get better at this whole "public speaking" thing.

On a related note, FFJS was once again brilliant. Best one day conference going this side of the world, hands down. Congrats to Julie and Remy on a stonkingly good day.

Election Season

So election season is upon us -- no, not that one -- elections for the W3C's Technical Architecture Group (TAG). You might be thinking to yourself "self, I didn't know the W3C had such a thing...how very strange...I wonder what it does." Also, you might be wondering why I'd bother to write about a perfunctory process related to a group whose deliverables you have probably never encountered in the wild and are fantastically unlikely to.

The answer is that I'm now in the running for one of the TAG's 4 open seats. At last week's TPAC I was talked talked myself into running. Google has nominated me, so we're off to the proverbial races. Given the number of condolences I've received since deciding to run, you might wonder why I'd do such at thing at all; particularly since the general consensus is that the TAG's impact is somewhere between "mostly harmless" and "harmless". I've never heard it described as "valuable" or "productive" in its modern incarnation, so why run? Could it be for the warmth of human contact that a weekly conference call could provide? A deep-seated but as yet unfulfilled desire to weigh in on what really irks me about how people use HTTP? Indeed not.

I'm running to try to turn the TAG into an organization that has something to say about the important problems facing devs building apps today; particularly how new specs either address or exacerbate those challenges.

Notionally that's what the TAG does now; review specs in development and provide feedback. If you look at the current work items, however, there's nothing about JavaScript. There's similarly little on DOM or the sorry state of API design at the W3C and how it is enabled by WebIDL and a broad cultural ignorance of JS. The TAG could provide advice on API design to WGs, how to think about creating a well layered platform, and how to keep webdevs in mind at all times.

State management gets a lengthy exposition that doesn't do much to uncover the challenges in designing apps that need to keep and manage state, synchronize that state in local data models, and map state onto URLs. Its a hard problem that most JS-driven apps struggle with and the TAG has no view beyond motherhood, apple pie, and pushState(). It can do better.

For webdevs, the TAG is a natural ally -- it carries the weight of the W3Cs reputation in ways that vendor-motivated WGs don't. It can be an advocate for building things well to reluctant managers and organizations, helping you make the "environmentalist" argument; "the web is for everyone, why are you making it bad?" It can also be a go-between for agitated webdevs and the WGs, a voice of reason and patient explanation.

As a talking shop, the TAG can never be expected to have power over implementations or webdevs, but it can be opinionated. It can take a stand on behalf of webdevs and call out huge problems in specs, missing work items for WGs, and build bridges to the framework authors that are doing the heavy lifting when the browsers don't. It can also build bridges to other standards bodies that specify hugely important parts of the web platform, bringing a webdev perspective to bear.

I have worked inside a browser, represented Google at TC39, and have built large apps and frameworks on the web stack. I have seen firsthand how the TAG isn't doing this important work of building bridges and jawboning on behalf of web developers. And I plan to fix it, if elected.

If you work at a company that is a member of the W3C, I hope to get your AC rep's vote. If not, I would still love your support in letting AC reps from the Member organizations know that you support the goal of turning the TAG into an advocacy organization for the interests of webdevs.

If you're particularly interested in this problem, I'd love your help -- I'm looking for reformist-minded candidates to join me in running for the TAG. If you don't have a sponsoring or nominating organization, send me mail or a tweet.

Voting nitty-gritty, largely cribbed from Ian Jacob's mail to a Members-only W3C mailing list:

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