Infrequently Noted

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


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 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.

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