Infrequently Noted

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

Some Questions Worth Asking

When I hear the following words or phrases I now have to stop and think about what is really being said since these words and phrases have been so heavily diluted and co-opted that their positive connotations can no longer be assumed:

Is a given innovation socially beneficial? I.e., does it improve the lots of any, many, or just a few? Innovation, it turns out, is a vector. It has both magnitude and direction, and that direction can be negative.
"Social Change"
What sort of change? Change is often good. Also, bad. Look closely.
"Open API"
The word "open" is so loaded that when combined with "API", it's nearly a sociopolitical phenomena of its own right. If you think of nothing else when you hear this phrase, think privacy in public. Who owns what happens on the other side of the API?

What am I missing?

Planet Chromium

All the Chromium news that I care about is now being aggregated at Planet Chromium, joining the similarly awesome Planet Webkit.

View-Source Follow-Up

One of the points I made during last Saturday's panel was that the further down the path we go with JavaScript, the more pressure there is to use it in ways that defeat view-source. Brendan called me out for seemingly not being aware of beautifiers which can help correct the imballance, but I think that response (while useful) is orthogonal to the thrust of my argument.

Indeed, I hadn't personally used the excellent, instead using my own hacked-up copy of Rhino to beautify when I need to, but neither tool sufficiently reverses the sorts of optimizations being employed by GWT and the even more aggressive Closure Compiler. Far from the mere obsfucation of ShrinkSafe and its brethren, these new compilers apply multi-pass AST-based transforms on an entire body of code, performing per-browser optimizations, type inference and annotation based optimizations, loop invariant hoisting, function inlining, dead-code removal, and global code motion optimizations that produce code different not only in style but in flow of control. The results are nothing short of stunning. The Closure Compiler can deliver code that's much, much smaller than I can wring out by hand and that performs better to boot. It's also totally unrecognizable. De-obsfucators have no hope in this strange land -- brand new tools akin to symbol servers and WinDbg-style debuggers are needed to work with the output in a meaningful way. I argued in the panel and in the comments of my last post on the topic that when we get to this place with JavaScript the product is functionally indistinguishable from a bytecode format like SWF or Java and the effects on the learning-lab nature of the open web are the same: less ability to easily share techniques, a smaller group of more professional users, and a heavier reliance on tooling for generating content.

If we assume that the furthest down the code-centric path we'll go are the Dojo and JQuery style augmentations of existing content, then a simple de-obsfucator is sufficient. But I'm afraid the current generation of high-end sites and apps points in a different direction, one that is less hopeful, and one that implies to a greater extent that the browsers must lead the way out of the wilderness by creating new tags and CSS properties to help re-democratize the process of creating applications. We've already seen the alternatives, and while they may be elegant, they lack leverage and the second-order beneficial effects that have made the web as successful as it is today.

If HTML is just another bytecode container and rendering runtime, we'll have lost part of what made the web special, and I'm afraid HTML will lose to other formats by willingly giving up its differentiators and playing on their turf. Who knows, it might turn out well, but it's not a vision of the web that holds my interest.

SxSWi '10 Reflections

I first attended SxSWi amidst the rubble of the dot-com crash, a time when the interactive festival filled only one hallway of the third floor of the Austin Convention Center. It's changed a lot since then, mostly in scale.

The lack of technical content is something I've bemoaned in years past but have finally come to accept. I was grateful to be on an excellent panel this year that touched on some topics that I both think and care a lot about. Our panel was also blessed with amazing audience engagement from people I respect. I chalk most of that up to Michael Lucaccini and Chris Bernard's excellent prep and panelist selection. Any panel with Chris Wilson and Aza Raskin on it is going to be good.

The explosion of SxSWi has not been a good thing and I went in the hopes that contraction had started as the economic disaster crimps budgets. Guess not. SxSWi was bigger than either the music or movie portions of the conference for the first time this year. Others have commented insightfully on the problems of scale, so I'll spare you the rundown of what makes an enormous conference uninviting, but suffice to say it seems like SxSWi has gone over some crucial limit and will continue its inexorable expansion until something gives in a dramatic way. Gravity cannot be reasoned with.

Unlike some of those who found themselves post-hoc disappointed, I really didn't think there was much chance of having a good time. Luckily I was wrong -- not so much because it suddenly got better than in '08, the last time I went -- but because I had learned how to cope better with the scale. My brother lives near Austin and getting to hang out with him made the entire experience better. I also employed a series of strategies that helped me have an experience that I'd gladly repeat:

I think all of this implies that folks who haven't been to SxSWi before aren't going to be able to have the same sort of open, trusting experience that I had when I first started attending, and that's a real loss; but at least I now feel like I can go and have a good and productive time. I'm grateful to have gone this year and I'm looking forward to next year already.

dojo.connect: Online Dojo Conference, Feb 10-12

Its been a rough year (or two) in the tech industry, and conference budgets aren't what they once were. Dustin Machi's doing his bit to keep the Dojo community connected by starting a fully virtual set of conferences, the first of which is 3 days full of Dojo goodness -- dojo.connect.

I'll be there virtually and I hope you can join us. The lineup is spectacular, and I can't think of a more concentrated way to get in touch with the community short of becoming a committer.

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