Hixie's Natural Log

2004-06-04 22:20 UTC Spring 2004 Travelog: Part 9 (Return to Europe)

Travelling east is painful. I woke up around 05:40 on Thursday, and went to bed around 15:00 on Friday, nine time zones away. My brain now thinks that 23:00 is a good waking time. Also, it meant I had three breakfasts yesterday, which successfully smashed my fast so that I wasn't hungry even though I should have been. Quite the biological clock confusion.

The second day of the workshop had more discussion. We had some straw polls; of the 40 or so people there, around 8 said they wanted to work on the work Opera and Mozilla have been proposing recently, and about 11 said that not only did they not think it would be worth working on this, but they actively thought that the W3C should not work on it.

In my opinion that's pretty short-sighted, but as Steven Pemberton pointed out, six year ago, the W3C decided that HTML was dead, and the way forward was a host of new languages (what is now XHTML2, XForms, MathML, SVG) that would lead the world's population to a clean new world. So at least they are consistent.

Of course I had to point out that six years ago, I was in school, which got a good laugh. My point, though, was that times change. In the last six years we have seen that authors simply didn't agree: Mozilla has supported MathML for years, but it is still very rare to see any MathML content on the Web. Mozilla, Opera and Safari all support XHTML1, in fact Mozilla has supported XHTML1 since before it had an assigned namespace and MIME type, but again the amount of application/xhtml+xml content on the Web is trivial.

The truth is that the real Web, the Web that authors write for, is the Windows IE6 Web. The only way to change that is to reduce the IE6 market share, and new technologies don't do this. Marketing does. Once users are primarily using a browser that is being regularly updated, then we can start introducing radically new technologies. Until then, such technologies simply aren't going to become popular.

There were a lot of rather confused statements during the meeting. For example, it is clear that a lot of people think that the browser is dead and that the way forward is transparent "runtimes" that execute remote applications securely. But then these same people demand to know why Mozilla, Opera and Safari don't support XForms and SVG, saying that their lack of support is crippling their standards' adoption.

Surely if the browser paradigm is dead, it doesn't matter what we implement?

What I think most of the people at the meeting actually want is a standard that combines XHTML, XForms, SVG, and SMIL (and CSS, DOM, and ECMAScript, although they rarely if ever actually mention those by name), and then adds enough APIs to make the host into a platform in its own right.

Java tried the "provide lots of APIs that are interoperable across lots of platforms" and failed. Some people thought this was because Java, as a language, is too complex for most applications. And Java doesn't have a detailed spec (not detailed enough to write an interoperable implementation accurate to the level that is needed for applications).

The detailed spec problem is the big issue. There has simply never been a Web specification written in enough detail for this kind of work. Even "DHTML", which does just a fraction of the number of APIs needed for the kinds of applications these people are imagining, is completely inadequately specified. For example, if you have an object element followed by a script block, will the script execute before or after the object has loaded? This is the kind of behaviour that scripts depend on. (Answer: In IE, the script will block waiting for the object, and if the object doesn't load, it will be removed from the DOM. The exact behaviour depends on the extension of the filename in the data attribute and the local computer's registry. Feel free to explore this yourself using these testcases...)

Making these specs more detailed is the work that Opera and Mozilla want to do. But to do this for a sophisticated application platform on par with, say, Longhorn, is simply unfeasible. Notice how WINE has to reverse engineer Windows to determine how it should work. Or how the various Java clones have to reverse engineer Sun's Java to get interoperability.

Of course, if they want to do this, I wish them the best of luck. I might even want to participate in the working group, since someone will have to look out for the Opera and Mozilla interests!

Sadly there does seem to be a growing opinion in certain circles that the W3C is becoming more and more out of touch with the Web. In many ways, this makes sense: the membership has many more server-side people than client-side people, and most of the client-side people are plug-in vendors, not browser vendors. (All the browser vendors present at the meeting were in favour of variants on the Opera/Mozilla ideas, but they were easily out-numbered by the non-browser members.) Since most people consider "the Web" to be what browsers show, it's only natural for an organisation of people who are largely not doing Web browser work to appear to be "out of touch".

Really it's not that the W3C is out of touch with the Web, but that the W3C membership is solving problems that every day Web users don't see. For example things like CC/PP and SOAP are very much back-end technologies.

I've also heard a lot of comments recently from people asking if the SVG working group realises that SVG 1.2 is becoming a dumping ground for anything and everything, instead of remaining just a graphics language. For example, SVG 1.2 drafts feature raw socket APIs and a Window interface. So I asked people at the conference whether the SVG working group shouldn't, instead of adding every feature under the sun to SVG, simply define how SVG should interact with other languages like XHTML. The answer I got was highly dismissive. Basically: "Well we want it in SVG".

You'll note that Robert O'Callahan (one of the core layout developers for Mozilla) sent an e-mail last month pointing out the many areas of overlap between SVG and CSS. He never got a reply to his last message. (Hmm... this is reminiscent of the way the SVG working group effectively ignored a message I sent back in 1999 pointing out a problem in SVG 1.0 that is still present in SVG 1.2 drafts — reply once, ignore further e-mails on the thread, and don't actually address any of the problems...)

Since many of SVG's features (like Window, or like the way CSS properties are allowed to have lengths with no units) directly conflict with existing standards (both ad hoc and de jure), it's quite clear that browsers that implement SVG will only ever be able to implement a subset of SVG.

Another point that was mentioned at the workshop was that DOM3 core was a long specification, checking in at some 216 pages. The SVG 1.0 spec is 719 pages long. (More than twice the length of CSS2.1, which I thought was already a ridiculously long specification.)

Still, it's a nice language if all you want to do is draw vector graphics.

Anyway. The issues have been discussed, the positions have been given, everyone knows where everyone else stands, now it's time to get down and actually start doing work.

What working group is going to work on extending HTML...

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