Earlier this week Christian Heilmann posted a talk and some interesting questions on his blog. Perhaps foolishly I decided to accept the challenge of answering them and what follows are my answers to his questions. My hope is to stimulate a bit of civilised debate and so I hope that people challenge what I have written. I’ve tried not to be too opinionated and qualify things with ‘I think’, ‘probably’ etc where possible, but these are inevitably my opinions (and nobody else’s) and should be interpreted as just that.
I think Christian has done a great job putting these questions together – if they make other people think as much as they made me think they’ve certainly been worthwhile. Like many of life’s great questions the answers don’t always boil down to yes and no. In fact usually there is a grey area in which a judgment call is required, and so I apologise in advance if some of the answers are simply ‘it depends’.
Can innovation be based on “people never did this correctly anyways”?
Yes, I’d say that innovation can be based on almost anything. It’s probably better if innovation is based on solid foundations, however I believe the web is more of a bazaar than a cathedral and so solid foundations aren’t always feasible.
If we look at some older browsers where let’s say the spec was interpreted in an unexpected way, take specifically IE5.5 and the CSS box model – hacks are required to get around its ‘creative’ implementation and due to the huge win of being able to write cross-browser web-pages with the same markup, hacks are almost always found. Often hacks by their very nature will be ugly, but this can help serve to remind us of their existence.* Once the hack is found innovation continues again at its usual pace. I’d argue that innovation on the web is built on a series of (often ugly) hacks.
To answer the question in the context of HTML5′s tolerance for sloppy markup, it’s interesting to note that HTML5 does allow you to markup as XHTML if you so choose, personally and maybe because I’m over fastidious, this is what I try to do. Whether the browser picks up my mistakes or just silently corrects them is another issue. Modern editors’ text highlighting helps a lot but if you are taking your markup seriously you may want to validate it. At the end of the day innovation will take place regardless.
Is it HTML or BML? (HyperText Markup Language or Browser Markup Language)
I think HTML should be accessible to more than what we traditionally view as the browser, yes. From an accessibility standpoint it should be a responsibility to make sure that pages are reasonably accessible from a range of devices such as screenreaders. What ‘reasonably accessible’ means could be cause for considerable debate. Additionally it is in most people’s interest to make their pages readable by a search-engine bot. Some developers may find that they want their pages to be parseable in which case they should probably mark them up in XHTML.
I think though, that the most effective way to encourage people to mark up their pages for devices other than browsers is to make clear the benefits of doing so. Search bots and screenreaders will eventually catch up and I think at that point we will be in a better place.
But while so much has been added to HTML, the hyperlink still remains and developers are encouraged to use it, even if in some cases it is just a fallback for more complex interactions. Only the other day we experienced the fallout from Google’s hashbang method of ajaxifying a link, I feel that a large part of this stemmed from the fact that developers felt that they no longer had to populate their hrefs, but in reality it is still highly recommended they do. So no matter how complex a web application becomes I’d argue that it should always be based fundamentally on the good old hyperlink in which case, strictly speaking it would be HTML.
Should HTML be there only for browsers? What about conversion Services? Search bots? Content scrapers?
Some would argue that information published publicly on the web is there to be consumed by however or whatever chooses to consume it. However a semantic web not only makes content more accessible to humans but also to algorithm running computers that seek to diseminate and categorise the wealth of information out there, this new information could then be presented back to a human and so the wheel turns and the machine cranks on. Again I feel developers should be shown the benefits.
Touching again on accessibility, laws exist and I think rightly so, to mandate that certain websites should be accessible to all, just as they do for certain buildings especially public ones. Whether your house or say a merry-go-round should be accessible is less clear. During the development of jPlayer we decided to make elements of it accessible because we felt it was the right thing to do, but the very first versions weren’t. The ‘right-thing-to-do’ can often be more a powerful motivator than any rule, especially if it is difficult to enforce.
Should we shoe-horn new technology into legacy browsers?
I think we should aim to support as many legacy browsers as reasonably possible – yes. What is ‘reasonably possible’ has always been a contentious issue but I think most developers broadly agree on what this means.
A key decision is how consistent you want each browser’s interpretation of your web page or application to be. Note that the experience will never be identical across all browsers, even the modern ones, so a certain degree of comprimise is always required. I really just view the shoe-horning of new technology into legacy browsers as just another hack, although instead of correcting a misimplemented feature its aim is to augment the legacy browser’s feature set to more closely match newer browsers.
Do patches add complexity as we need to test their performance? (there is no point in giving an old browser functionality that simply looks bad or grinds it down to a halt)
If we take patches to mean any code styling or markup that can adequately add missing functionality to a browser, (are also referred to as shims, shivs or more recently polyfills), yes patches do add complexity, but well written patches that can easily be dropped into a project should mask the complexities from the web developer. You could argue that patches are essential if we are to start using new technologies like HTML5 in the wild. Again a decision needs to be made as to whether a patch slows down a browser unacceptedly, whether to fallback to a less complete solution for legacy browsers or whether not to use the new technology at all yet.
How about moving IE fixes to the server side? Padding with DIVs with classes in PHP/Ruby/Python after checking the browser and no JS for IE?
The trouble with moving fixes to the server-side is that, in my experience at least, front-end developers and especially designers (whose lives these fixes affect) like to be able to develop applications with as little contact with the server as possible. Some web pages don’t even require any real server-side interaction and so we would be creating an added burden to the designer or developer’s development cycle. That said if the web developer could continue to work as usual on a web application that relied on the server-side anyway, safe in the knowledge that the server would take care of any differences then I suppose that would be one possible solution.
Another issue is server-side solutions tend to be less transparent and this could cause unneccessary resistance to those who might seek to change and evolve these fixes. You would also have to deal with the situation where several server-side fixes existed (PHP/Ruby/Python etc), the exception perhaps being mods to the actual webserver (although webservers do vary).
It is true that developers or designers are unlikey to work without a webserver these days but on balance I think there are a lot of issues to be resolved before all but the simplest fixes get moved to the server-side. So I’d say some IE fixes on the server-side could well make sense, anything more complex probably isn’t warranted.
Can we expect content creators to create video in many formats to support an open technology?
I don’t think we can expect content creators to create a video in many formats to support a certain technology just because it is open. It’s more likely to depend on the content creators and the market that they are appealing to – whether they are creating a true native cross-platform solution or whether they are willing to fallback to say Flash to deliver content that a browser doesn’t natively support. I think this is an area where some sort of server-side video format conversion module could be useful in encouraging developers to support native video in every browser. Ironically any tool that converts to or from certain types of encoded video could be subject to royalties (I’d love to be proved wrong here). A content creator could decide to support only open video formats but for example if H.264 is assumed not to be open, the big question is how do you create a video fallback for iOS whose browser doesn’t support Flash or similar.
Can a service like vid.ly be trusted for content creation and storage?
Content creation could be a winner though, in the sense that it would be nice to upload one format and several other formats be made available to you. It’s a bit unfashionable but I sometimes wonder whether the WordPress model of being able to download and drop in a useful module on to your LAMP stack makes more sense. I’d love to be able to host my own personal version of vid.ly for use on my website only – it also makes sense from a distributed computing point of view.
Is HTML5 not applicable for premium content?
If we take premium content to mean content available for a fee, it is certainly more difficult to protect that content from being downloaded with HTML5. Being able to view source is arguably one of the most important aspects of open technology and HTML5 is a group of open technologies. However there is almost always a way to grab premium content whether it is based upon open technology or not, so at the end of the day we’re really talking about how difficult you make this.
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