Browser Wars Redux: Don't Touch That Meme

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There's a strange meme on the loose: that what the world needs is a return to the browser wars:

To get a better future, not only do we need a return to “the browser wars”, we need to applaud and use the hell out of “non-standard” features until such time as there’s a standard to cover equivalent functionality. Non-standard features are the future, and suggesting that they are somehow “bad” is to work against your own self-interest.

Web developers everywhere need to start burning their standards advocacy literature and start telling their browser vendors to give them the new shiny. Do we want things to work the same everywhere? Of course, but we’ve got plenty of proof to suggest that only healthy browser competition is going to get us there.

For those of you too young to remember, the "browser wars" refers to the period after Microsoft belatedly woke up to the Web, and realised that Netscape Navigator was becoming a de facto platform independent of the underlying operating system.

Microsoft broke Netscape's power by breaking Web standards: it constantly added new, non-standard features to Internet Explorer so that Web sites written to utilise them would not be rendered properly by Netscape. Since Microsoft owned the desktop then as now, and since Internet Explorer was bundled with it, the company could be sure that its standards would be supported over anything that Netscape tried to introduce. Gradually more and more sites appeared sub-standard when viewed on Netscape, forcing people either to move to Internet Explorer or run two browsers in parallel, reinforcing Microsoft's features yet further.

It was only once Internet Explorer succeeded in ousting Netscape Navigator as the dominant browser that Microsoft called a halt to the campaign. In fact, it not only stopped adding new twists, it stopped innovating at all for years. This, in its turn, gave Firefox the chance it needed, with the result that the latter now holds between 15% and 45% across Europe (the UK, to its eternal shame, is right at the bottom of the league table), with a similar spread of figures around the rest of the world.

A return to the browser wars would simply allow Microsoft to play the same game again, with similar results. The argument that we need “the new shiny” as the above quotation puts it, is very close to Microsoft's standard line that to preserve “innovation” it should be unfettered by technical standards – or anti-trust laws.

But as Chris Messina perceptively notes, pitting standards against innovation is a false dichotomy:

the way forward is the way of open source and open communities that produce results. And given that we do already have a body of standards that we can build on top of, I do worry that a lot of effort will be wasted paving a new path towards an uncertain future, when there is still so much potential and opportunity to be had with the technologies that are available today but are simply underutilized and have yet to be exploited.

The solution is not to go back to the bad old days of piling on closed, proprietary elements in the hope that something useful will come out at the other end, but to use the iterative, Darwinian development process at the heart of free software to drive innovation – inexorably and openly.

Have you read

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