On Fighting the Web Itself

Earlier this week I posted a short piece about end user licensing questions in Silverlight. I discussed potential incompatibilities in the Beta 2 licensing terms with respect to open source software development. For most people this is a niche concern, a curiosity, but not something they would normally be thinking about. Besides, one expects that these problems will get fixed in the final Silverlight EULA. So why raise the question at all?

The short answer is that the technology behind Silverlight, and most certainly the company creating it, has the potential of changing how the web itself works.

If you're a web developer then you've felt the acute pain involved in writing applications inside the browser. Even armed with the most state-of-the-art toolkits, such as jQuery, Dojo, etc., you're still limited to the available runtime of HTML, CSS, and JS, and worse, the absolute morass of cross-browser incompatibilities and restricted access to native client-side capabilities. I remain in awe of what people have accomplished in this environment, but I'm sad that this is all we've been able to accomplish so far.

The web revs slowly. Very, very slowly. In 10 years we've seen virtually no meaningful advances in the the ubiquitous web client; just a painful slog forward as web developers learn to eek out just a little more functionality in a constrained environment. Progress is slow because revving the ubiquitous client requires the coordination of multiple parties, not all of whom have shown consistent interest in working together to move the web forward.

More recently we've seen some earnest attempts at breaking that cycle. Rather than wait for the entire web to catch up, projects like Gears seek to rev the client from the inside out. It may take several years for standards like HTML5 to be widely deployed, but if developers can gain a toehold inside the client and start forcing the issue immediately then we'll quickly see what works and what doesn't, and be that much more informed about what to standardize and adopt as part of the long-term web platform.

But there's another approach, an approach best exemplified today by the Flash runtime, whereby one doesn't seek to improve the web from the inside, but rather replace it entirely. Sure, technologies like Flash take advantage of the web via http-based delivery mechanisms and in that they run inside the browser, and yes, they can use network connections like anything else, but these alternate runtimes fundamentally divorce themselves from the web ecosystem, and in doing so gain a significant advantage, but at a cost.

In spite of circumventing the web -- no, because they circumvent the web -- these new runtimes have the potential of offering a far better developer experience, and hence, a far better user experience, then the least-common-denominator of the standard widely-deployed ubiquitous browser runtimes of today.

Which leads us to Silverlight: Silverlight is positioned to take the fork-and-forget approach to the web pioneered by Flash and bring to it an unprecedented wealth of technology and corporate might. With a better underlying runtime and VM, better tool support, far superior multi-language capabilities, and more marketing muscle, Silverlight has all the potential to make rapid and noticeable inroads over the next several months, cleaving a large section clean out of the web.

And the scary thing? That this isn't entirely a bad idea. The browser itself is anemic, the dependency on a single language is a handicap, the security models simultaneously constricting and flawed, the development environments underpowered, and frankly, the whole ecosystem is deserving of a major disruption. We've lived too long thinking that what we have today is good enough.

Granted, these technologies won't be perfect at first. On the contrary, they might be slow, cumbersome to deploy, buggy, and feature deprived. But right now that doesn't matter. The strategy is all about getting a wedge in place, a bit of leverage that can be used to further pry open a vector for escaping the existing ecosystem. And over time, as the technology improves and adoption grows, so will the size of that tear in the fabric of the web.

But fighting the web is like holding back the ocean; it will route around you or it will wear you down, but will never go away, and it will never tire or give up. Yet in spite of the futility of fighting the web, Silverlight is being positioned in opposition to the web, not in support of it.

Why in opposition to the web? This stems from the principle that the web is axiomatically defined as an open system, where the underlying technologies are resistant to the centralization of control, where the protocols and formats are extensible and malleable, and where the power to effect change is shared and distributed. The DNA of the web is one of ceding control, and of learning to work with, rather than against, the collective wisdom and power a larger community.

Whereas a development monoculture, a centralization of control, and a tight grasp on the ability to change and adapt, all stand against these basic ideals, and give rise to the forces that, given enough time, will erode and eat away at any temporary advantage gained.

A violation of these principles does not necessarily make for a bad technology, but it does make it something other than the web. The winners here will be those that harness the power of the open web, not those who align themselves against it. Fragmentation wastes time and energy and offers little in return other than short term distractions, whereas as a collaboration offers the potential for long term solutions.

The collective forces on the web are not going to sit idly by and let the Internet operating system be fragmented and dominated like we saw in generations past. Difficult lessons were learned, and there is an inherent will about the web that resists all such attempts with striking efficacy. Success is unlikely when everyone is aligned against you.

But the call to action here is not to go and try to fight the disruptive technology. On the contrary, the ideas are sound and the improvements are very much needed. No, the call is to discover ways in which these ideas can become a part of the web, rather than working to tear it apart.

I do not want to see ambitious attempts like these fail. Just the opposite -- I want to see them succeed. But success on the web requires a different kind of DNA, the type of DNA that is difficult to adopt when one's attention is focused on fighting the web itself.