Infrequently Noted

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

Power vs. Authority

More than a year ago I had the pleasure meeting a man by the name of Amit Green. At the time we got to talking about lots of things, and eventually his arguments helped turn the tide on making the big changes required for Dojo 0.9. As a part of of those discussions, he convinced me to read this book, which in 2007 read as part wise tome and part time-capsule from a simpler, slower time in business. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from it was the difference between power and authority. To quickly summarize, "power" is the ability to affect change while "authority" is the right to make any given decision. It's easy to see how these are different: the person actually doing the work has all the power while the person who signed off on the spec has the authority. Sometimes these things are embodied in the same person but the minute they're not you have a "management problem". The solution isn't to just assume that one person will do everything; you'll get no division of labor that way which defeats the entire point of modern economics. Instead, you have to get everyone to respect the other parties such that authorized decisions represent the interests of those with power and that those with power have some agency.

But what happens when that process breaks down? When those with power forget that they have (or should have) instigating new decisions or framing them correctly? Or when everyone on the outside assumes that those with authority are the ones who can really make something happen? I'll argue that you get the web as we know it today.

As a case study in putting your faith in the wrong idols, you can't do better than posts like this which "blame the W3C" (via Molly). Blaming the W3C for not pushing the web forward is both humorously off-target and distressingly common. I've written about this before, but fundamentally you can't blame the W3C for failing to act because it's not the W3C's job to act. An MBA should be able to tease this out a bit more effectively – any decision only requires that you have answers for five questions: why? what? how? when? who?

Answering these for pushing the web forward is straightforward, even on a simplistic level:

Figuring out "how" leads you directly to "who" in this case. The action we all want is the sole purview and responsibility of the browser vendors and they alone have the power to push the web forward. The "web standards community" has made it clear that they'll need the imprimatur of some authoritative body where agreement can be forced, but that hasn't kept the browser vendors from taking the initiative there, either. The big, open questions then center around how the "web standards community" can make enough room for renderer vendors to try out new stuff, since that's how we get new things. Demanding agreement on what to do before trying it out demonstrably doesn't work, so it's then imperative that there be a mechanism for the web to iterate prior to standardization. In fact, I'll argue that this is now the biggest reason that Paul Ellis isn't getting the improvements he wants out of the web: there's no mechanism in place by which any browser vendor can take significant risks without incurring the wrath of a swarm of WaSPs, or worse. Attempts to even begin to lay the groundwork for such a mechanism have been shot down forcefully by may folks who, like Paul, view "fixing the web" as the W3C's job.

Standards bodies are animated only by the needs of industry to reduce costs by forcing vendors to agree on things. Like Open Source, they can act as a back-stop to the monopoly-creating power of network effects by ensuring that the price of software commodities eventually does reach zero. In this context, then, the W3C's only effective function is to drive consensus when visions for how to go forward diverge or lead down proprietary ratholes. Asking the W3C for more is the fast path to continued disappointment.

The W3C is just a sail and all sails need the wind to function. You can't blame the sail for the wind not blowing.

A Lovely Box For Your Toolkit

I'm incredibly excited about the SitePen Dojo Toolbox AIR app that just launched. I've been using early versions for a couple of weeks now, and in that time it has earned a privileged place on my desktop. Being able to make local builds without delving to the command line is something that I've wanted to be able to show new Dojo users for years and this tool finally makes it easy. There's more work to do around configuring the profiles themselves, but the new tool demystifies many of the build configuration options significantly. Having a searchable API viewer available is also a godsend. Huge props to the team that put it together!

Edit: I forgot to note one of my favorite parts of the project, namely that because the Dojo build system is written in JavaScript (thanks to James Burke's awesome work), the build system in the Toolbox doesn't require Java. Instead, SitePen was able to port the few Rhino dependencies in the build tool to work with the native JavaScript engine in AIR. It's a minor thing, but it speaks to the excellent engineering behind Dojo's tooling and the power of having actual web-native technologies inside a desktop app.

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