Infrequently Noted

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

Transition

Two days ago I dusted off the rarely-used voting procedure for Dojo Foundation projects in order to kick off a transition that I'm very excited about: as of this afternoon, the committers of the Dojo project have elected Peter Higgins the new Project Lead for the toolkit project.

I've had the pleasure of working with Peter both in the Dojo project and at SitePen and his energy and enthusiasm for making Dojo better and helping designers and developers work better together is infectious.

For anyone not familiar with Peter's work, he's been instrumental in the creation of the amazing Dojo Campus website (along with the Uxebu chaps) as well as being primary author of many DojoX components. His work in shepherding new contributors through the contributor to committer process is nearly legendary inside the project, and Peter has been a one-man outreach and support machine via the Dojo blog and his endless patience on the forums and IRC (#dojo on irc.freenode.net). I couldn't be happier about where Dojo is headed under his direction.

There have already been some recurring questions about this transition amongst the committers and on today's Open Web podcast, so let me quickly recap them here:

Q: Will you still be involved in Dojo?

Absolutely! I'm excited that Pete is taking on the figurehead and "vision thing" duties which is a role that he's naturally suited to. Part of this transition is about me wanting more time to focus on experimental and edgy stuff that can make a huge difference in how we work with the web and I have no doubt that Peter is the right guy to help us grow the truly open Dojo community even further. He absolutely gets the importance of a truly open community, the need to be conservative about where IP comes from and meet our promises of backwards-compatibility, and how Dojo can make big changes in the lives of application developers and designers. I'm grateful to be have the opportunity to continue working with him on Dojo and will continue to do so in whatever capacity Peter deems appropriate.

Q: Does this change your role at the Foundation?

Nope. I'm still serving as President of the Dojo Foundation. This transition will allow me to also focus more time on ensuring that the Foundation is running well, that a new Board is elected soon, and that the Foundation's other projects succeed on their own terms. The Foundation has always been about more than just giving Dojo a home, and we're now looking to expand the umbrella of the Foundation to help nurture other JavaScript and Open Web projects more than ever.

Q: Will you still be doing talks on Dojo?

Yep, I'll still be out there advocating the Dojo case, but you can expect to see Peter doing more of that over time as well. If you're planning a conference and are looking for a cogent person to talk about Dojo, Peter is now your go-to guy. I've enjoyed having the opportunity to think and talk about where the Open Web is headed, so I'll also be doing a lot more of that. There are lots of meta-issues that this transition will let me work harder on, so expect more from me there.

My hat's off to the Dojo community and Peter in particular. The work that has gone into 1.2 and will land in 1.3 and beyond under his direction really is changing the way we view what the web can and should be used for.

A Little Perspective

I live in a world dominated by the unfeeling, unaccountable whims of browser vendors and so it is with a 50 lb bag of rock salt that I consume the optimistic projections of Firefox's triumphal ascendence to market dominance.

As it turns out, my skepticism is absolutely justified. Now, this isn't to say that I'm not an optimist – I am, and given what I do for a living, I need to be hopeful about the future. I would have succumbed to serious depression long ago if I weren't deeply hopeful at some level. Clearly, though, big dreams are only rewarded with the depleted melancholy of a future forever deferred. We Ajax hackers color in the margins because we know all-too-well that Firefox hasn't won. Yeah, it's great for the 20% that have picked it up, but we can't count on them. People, it seems, don't easily change their habits regarding which button on the desktop to click to get to "the google".

Lets put the last year's market numbers for browsers in some perspective. From July '07 to July '08, IE 6 market share declined from ~45% to ~26%, or a drop of 19%. Given that we know that the Win2K market share numbers are now well below 5% on the public interwebs, this gives us serious reason to hope: if the remaining 25% could just be convinced to get with the century and run Windows Update (12 times or so), we'll all be able to target the best in late-'90's browser technology. In the same year-ish timeframe, IE 7 went from ~33% to ~47%, a gain of 14%. That leaves 5% of the churn on the table for non-MSFT browsers, most of which was picked up by Firefox. Since Win2K was still below 5% a year ago, who are these users who pick Firefox and not IE 7?

Part of the story about the uptake of IE 7 is the story of Vista. Vista was hovering near 5% in June of last year and a year later had taken a nearly 15% share. Now, it's hard to say anything useful about potential correlations, but if there's a 10% gain in IE 7-by-default installs of an OS, and if some large percentage of that number came at the expense of non-upgraded XP boxen (likely old computers), it wouldn't be hard to spin a yarn about how Firefox is gaining market share primarily at the expense of IE 6. To get a concrete answer to this will likely mean paying $100 for access to "pro" version of the Net Applications numbers, but even without it we can say something very concrete about the power of OS bundling of browsers:

Competitor displacement of bundled browsers on the monopoly market-share OS has a demonstrated year-on-year market-share improvement rate of 4%/year.

That 4% a year is pretty consistent since 2004 as well. Ouch. By way of comparison remember that IE 7 is replacing IE 6 at a rate triple that. Obviously that's not apples-to-apples since every browser's "internal" version replacement rates are much higher than their competitor-displacement-rates, but it's clear that most users aren't making choices about browsers. Auto-upgrades are largely doing their thing and users are making choices about OSes and (mostly) living with whatever shows up on the desktop.

This isn't to say that Firefox can't do better and that it's not having an effect. It appears that the adoption rate for Firefox is going to have improved this year versus last, perhaps significantly. Safari is also making inroads into IE's market-share, both as a result of iTunes bundling and Mac market-share gains in the face of Vista. It's also unlikely that IE 7 and IE 8 would be happening but for the competition that Firefox has brought. But the take-away here is as powerful as it is dispiriting: we may be able to abandon IE 6 in another year or two, but no matter who works to displace it, IE 7 is going to be with us a long, long time. Worse, the sustained rate of competitor-displacement in the browser market is now much, much lower than it was in the previous era of browser competition. In one sense, competition is working in that every browser vendor is creating new versions. But the bigger picture remains: Flash can get to "ubiquitous" across the entire web with new capabilities in roughly 18 months and the Open Web faces a best case replacement time-frame of 5 years.

Reducing that differential from 42 months to zero is now the defining challenge of the Open Web. HTML is back in the hunt. Time to see how fast we can teach it remember the new tricks we're so eager to teach.

The Price of Anonymity: Our Principles?

I'm blessed with many friends in the Bay Area and incredibly grateful to count Caryl Shaw among them. It was pretty horrifying, then, to see the Digg "commentary" on an article which she wrote for PC Gamer. Luckily, much of the worst of the lot are being modded down as time goes on, but seriously, who really thinks that blatantly sexist comments are passable in 2008? That those kinds of comments occur on high-volume sites like Digg or Slashdot, sadly, doesn't surprise me.

It's really hard to know where to start in pondering the deep-seated misogyny that leads anyone to think that comments along those lines are OK, particularly in a public forum. That's perhaps part of the issue: while public, Digg (and Slashdot, etc.) comments are anonymous enough to give voice to the kinds of behavior that any society must excise if it hopes to achieve anything near its potential. We have shared principles that govern our society because we agree (together) that they're best for everyone and not just some smaller set of people. Anonymity suppresses the social enforcement functions that usually keep this kind of stuff from dominating the discussion by removing the sense of public shame that should be felt when saying vile things about others. Typing away at a keyboard allows one to feel alone but act in public in a way that creates an all-to-common dynamic online.

That got me thinking about OSCON and the talks that get proposed on the topic of gender balance nearly every year (I serve on the program committee). I usually find myself conflicted about such proposals, in part because I think the Open Source world has – in the main – been incredibly dishonest with itself to date regarding gender disparities. Jennifer and I seem to discuss it as it comes up every year, always ending up at the frustrating conclusion that this is the outcome the community allows. Surely this kind of objectionable behavior wouldn't show up so frequently if we were closer to gender balance in the OSS world. But the larger tech world seems to be addressing the topic badly if at all and OSS is no exception. Organizations like LinuxChix, SFWOW, and the Anita Borg Institute seem to me as much as defense mechanism against pervasive misogyny than a viable path forward. Segregation can't be our answer. Luckily there was a great talk this year by Emma Jane Hogbin (good notes here) which got to a lot of the meat of the issue (also, see Pia Waugh's talk summary). I find the discussion about the offhand comments which are tolerated by OSS communities to be particularly spot on: many of these communities have very strict rules about how they build and discuss code but are completely tone-deaf to how they alienate 50% of the world. Under the surface of both gaming and OSS is much the same dynamic at play when it comes to the treatment of women and, well, anyone else who's not a young white male from somewhere in the midwest. I've certainly seen my share of deplorable IRC conversations in rooms ostensibly dedicated to Open Source projects. Small or highly-focused communities might not put up with the crap that passes for discussion on Digg, but as communities grow without a strong set of norms in place and enforced, it seems inevitable that the semi-anonymous nature of the medium begets a hostile environment.

This is about the point where folks jump in to note that anonymity on the internet is a great tool for freedom; a way for the oppressed to express themselves and organize to further causes which are actually worth rallying to. But this argument breaks down quickly here: degenerate behavior in support channels or on discussions about popular links serves no principle, rises to no higher cause than prurient interest, and builds no "community" other than those who tolerate the objectification and denigration of half (or more) of the world's population. Frankly, that's not a community I want any part of.

So what, then, is the lesson for Open Source? Having just spent the week at OSCON, I've been slapped in the face once again by the complete lack of gender balance in Open Source contribution and computer engineering disciplines in general. It's kinda painful to walk around the expo hall and just imagine that for every 5 guys there are 4 women who were insulted, condescended to, or in some other way diverted from the path that would have landed them at OSCON. Simplistic arguments about graduation and enrollment rates are the dismissible results of completely antiquated cultural biases (via a new large-scale UW-Madison study). The UW study makes the case plainly: when we stop expecting differences and behave as though they are abnormal, they go away. Yes, yes, there are evolutionary differences in the physiology of men and women, but nothing that in any way explains anything like the complete dearth of female participation in Open Source. So we are left with just ourselves to blame.

In the Dojo project forums, mailing lists, and IRC channel, there is a strict policy forbidding offensive and lewd behavior. With that basic rule in place and enforced by long-time members of the community, the hostile environment so common elsewhere hasn't formed. That leads to a further puzzle: the Open Source world finds itself debating the moral and practical consequences of obtuse licensing aspects on a daily basis. What makes norms of community behavior around race, gender, and other forms of bias so different and loaded that Open Source community leaders then can't or won't speak to them? If we're developing this software with society at large, for society at large, why is absence of half of society from the process not the largest topic of discussion in the OSS world? It's certainly much more disturbing to me personally than any of the dickering over licenses that consumes so much time and attention.

The gaming world will need to clean up its own act, but the Open Source community doesn't need to wait for that to happen before acting. Unlike for-profit endeavors, Open Source projects have total leeway to act because it's the right thing to do and for no other reason. Open Source communities set standards – codes of conduct, if you will – regarding how code is developed, tested, licensed, and distributed. Open Source project leaders are in the business of setting standards for how well-organized communities act when it comes to code. So why are so many projects stopping there? The Ubuntu community Code of Conduct talks about respect but doesn't mention gender at all and while the OSI Code of Conduct talks about civility, it doesn't describe the norms which the community is held to aside from a reference to their Terms of Service which bury these expectations in 5 pages of legalese. At Dojo we haven't laid out our code of conduct in a document to date, but this latest incident has convinced me now that it's time to do so. Finding ways to modify our expectations around OSS participation by the "missing half" is now something I'm convinced is critical to the future of Open Source and computer science in general.

In that spirit, here's a first draft of a Code of Conduct for all Dojo Foundation projects which I'll send for discussion to the main Foundation list today for comment and hopefully adoption. Your thoughts on how it can be improved are much appreciated. It may not change the entire world of Open Source software development, computer science, or for that matter gaming, but we've got to start somewhere. We haven't let the Dojo community be complicit in the kind of misogyny-fueled belligerence that passes for commentary on Digg so perhaps by codifying those standards we can help create a clean, brightly-lit space where everyone can work, not just young white guys with too much time not enough perspective.

Update: Emma Jane Hogbin notes that others are starting to run with this too. The Dojo Foundation response to the proposed Code of Conduct has been very positive while there seems to be a lot of skepticism so far on the FLOSS Foundations mailing list regarding the need for a pan-Foundation statement of conduct principles. It'll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Update 2: as I was listening to my podcasts this evening, I ran across a fascinating On The Media piece from this week that's pretty much required listening on this topic. Amazing and introspective stuff.

Update 3: What would Digg be like with Yog Rules?

Updates from Portland

I've been in Portland since Saturday, first attending FLOSS Foundations meeting which was very productive, and now attending meetings and tutorials and such. I've been a bit disconnected from the rest of the world due to The Conference Effect, but Nikolai from Uxebu gave me a heads-up that today they've announced a new Dojo + Django integration project called Dojango. A lot of the Dojo community thinks the Django guys have done a lot of things right, so this kind of integration makes tons of sense. I can't wait to see how it evolves.

While here I also got wind that Sun has quietly announced a new version of the Java Communication Suite with a rich, Dojo-based web interface. I don't know if it's running publicly anywhere, but it looks like an impressive win for Sun's Communication Suite customers.

If you're in Portland, I hope you'll join us for tonight's dojo.dinner(), 6:30pm at the Chesterfield (and RSVP for it by by sendng us mail).

OSCON '08

I'm leaving tomorrow for my yearly trek to Portland for OSCON. If you're going, don't hesitate to drop me a line if you want to catch up or RSVP for the Dojo meetup/dinner on Wed evening.

Speaking as a member of the OSCON program committee, I'm very happy about the quality of the talks in the web-ish tracks this year. There's even a Dojo talk – even though for the first time in a long while, I won't be giving any talks. The inimitable Matthew Russell, author of ORA's Dojo: TDG will be giving an awesome talk on 2D drawing with Dojo's GFX system. I know he's got some awesome demos worked up, so I can't wait to see the talk. Gavin Doughtie, occasional contributor to the GFX system, is also giving several talks that you'll find me in. Should be a lot of fun.

On a more macro scale, though, I've started to become concerned that "Open Source" as a brand has lost its way. Those who would speak for Open Source have focused narrowly on licensing and have largely ignored the other social processes and artifacts that define what it means to contribute to OSS projects and how those artifacts lead to success or failure of projects, and therefore, of the movement such as it is. There's a huge disconnect between what the letter of the Open Source law dictates (the licenses) and the social and process constraints that are required to build high-quality, trustable communities that ensure 100 point OSS products, and many businesses have struck on these differences as a way to use the Open Source brand to imply or insinuate that users should trust their products more than is warranted. OSI's failure to address this brand erosion has had some troubling effects in the small JavaScript corner of the OSS world of late, and I know we're not alone. OSI has also proven completely impotent in preventing license proliferation, further eroding the Open Source brand. There are, of course, lots of folks who are also concerned about these thing, and so I'm excited to see David Recordon (of OpenID, etc. fame) giving a talk which looks to talk about some of the community aspects. I tend to blow off "community" talks at conferences, but given David's use of the phrase "Open Web" and his unique perspective, I'll be interested to see what he says. I'll also be curious to see if and how any of this is discussed at the FLOSSCON meeting of OSS Foundation leaders tomorrow and Sunday.

If you'll be in Portland next week, don't hesitate to join us for the dojo.dinner() on Wed. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again and talking though the issues. Should be a great time.

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