[Jeff Covey @ Freshmeat] We Are Losing the Browser War

From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Sun Mar 25 2001 - 00:24:02 PST

It's 2001, and people are advocating taking Flash, JavaScript, and/or Java
out of the Web. Didn't those languages arise because Web developers
needed them?

To see commentary on this article go to where I found it...


We are losing the browser war
 by jeff covey, in Editorials - Saturday, January 27th 2001 23:59 EST

Anonymous has had his eye on his Web server logs lately, and is worried at
the shift in the ratio of Netscape to IE browsers hitting his pages. He
worries that, if we're not careful, this trend on the desktop could undo all
the progress Linux has made in the server room, and he offers some ideas on
how we could fix things.

I have been watching netcraft.co.uk. It is pleasing to see that Apache is
increasing its slice of the pie with almost every new report.

Unfortunately, I have also been looking at Web server access logs, and I
have been seeing a decline in the use of Netscape with a corresponding
increase in Internet explorer. That is a problem.

Without a decent browser, it will be difficult for alternative operating
systems to remain viable. We owe the old Netscape a great debt of gratitude
for releasing a Linux version of Netscape so early on; it quickly made Linux
a viable desktop, and later did the same for the other free Unices. Only a
few wise men seem to realize this.

To paraphrase Linus: "It's the desktop, stupid." Backend infrastructure can
be replaced quickly; user desktops cannot, so we are vulnerable to being
leveraged out of the server space. Microsoft could use its increasing
dominance at the client side as a wedge to lift Linux out of the server
room. FreeBSD's motto "The power to serve" means nothing if it can't serve
up the proprietary or patented protocols spoken by the clients.

We need some nontrivial presence on the client side to prevent the
bastardization of protocols and file formats. Don't think that just because
a file contains the pixy dust of XML it can't be made proprietary. I am
convinced that there are people patenting DTDs as I write this.

In the newer Linux distributions, we have an operating system capable of
holding its own on the desktop; now we need a viable browser. Unfortunately,
Netscape and Mozilla have lost their way. Netscape had its air supply cut
off by a better-funded opponent. Mozilla... well, I am unsure what to make
of it. I am guessing that when it was released it was a mess understood by a
few. Now a couple of valiant individuals have undertaken the thankless task
of cleaning it up. They might even be succeeding.

Unfortunately, it appears that Mozilla still carries the legacy of some poor
management decisions. I think (and I might be wrong) that the plan was to
turn Netscape into an operating system of its own. In a horrible way, they
have succeeded; Mozilla is about as bloated as some of the largest operating

The problem is not only that Mozilla is big and slow, removing it as the
browser of choice for older and embedded systems (exactly the place where
Linux is a viable contender), but also that it is difficult to understand.
Heck, simply compiling it can be tricky. Getting up to speed on Mozilla
appears to be difficult, so contributing is difficult.

I believe that the strength of the Open Source movement is that its
components are highly modular. Forget the big projects such as gcc or the
Linux kernel which need to be run by experienced wizards. Most Open Source
projects are small; a talented programmer can understand the entire system.
If contributers get in on the ground level, they too can keep track of their
own part. The modularity is much stronger than the (IMHO rubbish) OO
methodology advocated by dubious software engineering textbooks. An Open
Source system breaks into objects at the executable level -- a level which
both the developer and system administrator understand -- not at lower
levels where it slows down development and execution.

An FTP server is an object. An FTP client is an object. The interface is
well-defined in a couple of RFCs. Don't like a particular server? Plug in
your own! It doesn't matter if the client is written in C, Python, Perl, or
Intercal. It doesn't matter how the internals of the FTP server are
structured. It's an object. No need to rely on inconsistent mangling of C++
classes in obscure libraries with undocumented interfaces and side effects.
No need to worry if the object fails; if the FTP client crashes, the server
keeps running. No esoteric marshaling or transport mechanism tied to a
particular language; objects communicate via vanilla Unix pipes or TCP/IP.

This point is really important. As long as the maintainers understand the
internals of their object/package and there are not too many dependencies,
Open Source works beautifully. Don't like sysvinit? replace it with
simpleinit or minit. Think you can do better than syslogd? Replace it with
syslog-ng or idsa. Think inetd is vulnerable to DoS attacks? Try xinetd or
tcpserver. Don't like bash? Try zsh or tcsh. Think wu.ftp is an exploit
waiting to happen? Install oftpd or troll ftpd. We have an amazing amount of
biodiversity (or should that be cyberdiversity?.

Open Source objects seem to do best when a replacement can be written by a
smart teenager during summer vacation or as an after hours project of an
experienced sysadmin. The replacement need not do all the original does and
won't be bug free, but it should be enough to show promise. Later, it will
become large and nastier, but the skeleton will be the same. This is
probably the core of the Open Source world, even if it means that there are
too many half-finished IRC clients.

Back to Mozilla. Mozilla is much larger than most Open Source projects.
Becoming a contributer is hard. Writing a replacement is harder. The people
at the W3C appear to have fallen into the same trap as the people who design
C++, and have added more and more baggage. No doubt they were under pressure
to formalize the extensions added by Netscape, Sun, and Microsoft, but

A browser is no longer something that speaks HTTP and renders plain HTML. It
now needs to do Javascript, cookies, Java, ActiveX, Flash, frames, cascading
style sheets, and XML disasters. Building a replacement browser is no longer
a vacation project for a couple of smart teenagers. Oh, sure, none of the
extensions are essential to a browser, but only a minority of sites don't
make use of at least one of the features.

So, we have a problem. Mozilla is too large to attract casual programmers in
the numbers it needs, and the Web itself consists of too much cruft. The
entry cost of the Web browser business is considerable. Large companies like
large entry costs since it keeps out the smaller players, including the
volunteers. Microsoft can throw programmers at Internet explorer.
Programmers at large corporations have to wade through spaghetti code
whether they like it or not, and paid programmers can spend their days doing
regression tests. Volunteers like doing neither of these things.

The free software community desperately needs a decent Open Web browser to
stave off the .net effort. It is probably the biggest software gap we have.
Solving it won't be easy, and losing it might be fatal.

I have thought about a number of approaches to the problem. One is to have
more people working on Mozilla. Mozilla is being cleaned up -- some
subsystems are probably quite solid by now -- but it is still large and
slow. If you think you are a hotshot programmer, consider helping out
Mozilla. If Mozilla makes a comeback, you'll be a hero.

Another method is to simplify the Web. We need to lower the entry costs for
the people writing alternative browsers. Web sites need to lose the Flash,
the Javascript links, and the font tags. That too is hard work. If you have
a Web page, resist the temptation to add clever stuff to it. Disable
Javascript, Java, and remote fonts in your browser. Ignore sites which rely
on these things. If you visit pages which do, drop the author a line and
tell him about it. Email is best. If you can't be bothered with email, try
the approach I use: I request links such as
r/ or http://www.someidiot.com/lose/the/flash/or/lose/this/viewer in the
hope that somebody reads the error logs.

Making the Web simpler is difficult, but we have a window of opportunity --
cell phones and other wireless browsers are still too small to run a large
browser, and WML is (rightly so) falling from favour. A restricted subset of
HTML might just work. Maybe the cHTML used in Japan might be a good
candidate (do we have a Linux cHTML browser?). We could kick up a stink
about accessibility -- put pressure on sites to keep it simple so that blind
and partially sighted people have a chance at viewing them. Emphasize the
risks of running Javascript and Java on the local machine. Point out the
risks to ecommerce sites. Point out the savings of turfing the Web design
division to the CEOs of failing dotcoms, letting them spend more funds on
the backend and order fulfillment. Inform people that fancy Flash pages and
Java applets won't be viewable in 20 years. Lead by example. Full marks for
freshmeat using HTTP authentication and not cookies. Use the "best viewed
with any browser" button. Focus on content, not looks.

And then there are the alternative Web browsers. Konqueror is showing
promise. Zen has the right approach. Express might be worth taking up again.
Maybe we could learn from the NCSA/Apache experience. When NCSA httpd was no
longer viable, some smart people put together Apache. Apache has something
important going for it -- it can be easily extended. It might be worth
trying the same for a new Web browser. Make it simple. Use wget to fetch the
pages. Pipe it to a simple caching program. Have the caching program pipe
the output to a simple renderer -- the GTK HTML render or maybe a diet
gecko. Control the pipeline from a simple X interface, and we have a Web
browser. X has a neat feature which lets a window of one application swallow
the window of another. One of the people who designed X wondered why it
wasn't used more often. Think about it -- for an HTML form input box,
instead of using a crummy text widget, we could spawn an xterm the exact
size of the text box, and use vim or any editor to fill out the form. It
would be nice. It would be easy to maintain. Crashing the editor would leave
the browser running.

In the last few years, the Open Source community has made good progress. We
now have several impressive operating systems. Apache is the most popular
Web server, but we need to have a viable Web browser, be it a working
Mozilla or a lighter alternative. Without it, we don't stand a chance
against .net.


Let's be serious. The web is getting more complicated. Designers like myself are demanding more control over presentation. Consumers are demanding more rich, interactive, and immersive experiences. And as complete as CSS, DOM, JavaScript, and HTML are, they are still losing ground quickly to Macromedia's Flash technology - an inferior, binary, and proprietary format (everything the web was never supposed to be) - because it offers consumers and designers exactly what they want.

But complication is not necessarily a bad thing. Space exploration is complicated. Microprocessors are complicated. Hell, my car is complicated - a beautiful, efficient, yet terribly complicated synergy of a hundred different technologies.

The point is that the web, which is essentially a completely free market, will not be held back because progress isn't "fair" to open-source development. Consumers will continue demanding better displays. Designers will have to create them. Technologies which deliver will survive, and those that don't will die.

I work with designers who will do anything to get the right effect. We've created kluges so thick they'd make you sick to your stomach. We've actually animated individual Flash objects around the screen with javascript and layers to get a particular effect. To suggest that such a breed would give up even an ounce of control to subsidize open-source development is just plain dumb.

In place of emailing webmasters and thinking up snappy things to write in bogus HTTP requests, I'd like to see the open-source community rally around and support Gecko. I'd like to see an improvement in DHTML performance, and a plugin to support XSLT. Fixing those weird scrollbar problems would be nice too...

There is a war for the web, but it's not against who you think. No matter what you think of it, Flash is gaining ground. Web authors are using it for more and more things that are difficult or impossible to do with cross-browser DHTML. And in contrast to the elegant and open nature of HTML, Flash is very proprietary, very binary, and very presentation-friendly. So if you want to fight the real enemy, upgrade to a decent browser and "demand" the efficient use of standards. Then, check out some of the best Flash implementations and learn how to match them with standards-based HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

In the end only consumers - and the designers and engineers who give them what they want - can win. If developers want a standards-based web, then they must expand and improve the standards. Lowering consumer expectations is impossible, and a complete waste of time.

-- Aaron at http://youngpup.net/writings/i_want_my_DOM/

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Fri Apr 27 2001 - 23:14:53 PDT