Where Is the Web Revolution Taking Us?


Today I read an article on happyworm.com titled "HTML 5 - The Revolution will not be Televised." It reminded me of some of the concerns I've been having lately with developments in the web industry. They are concerns I spoke about briefly at the end of my presentation on Web Human Interface Guidelines at MinneWebCon 2009, and now feels like a pretty good time to dust the subject off and say some more about it.

Specifically, I did not share the happyworm article's optimism about these points:

"It seems that it's not so much about the corporations anymore, more about the community."

"...a seismic shift in power towards the community and away from the browser vendors, the consequences of which cannot be underestimated."

First, let me start by saying I'm assuming by "community" the author meant web developers. It is important to note that Apple, and even more so Google, were heavily involved in the HTML5 spec and thus, if only by association, the demise of XHTML2. I ask if maybe the power has moved away from browser vendors towards content-provider corporations, and not towards the community? (It is worth noting that this is a very common trend now in America for decades.) The W3C ceding some control strikes me as perhaps further evidence that the community may actually be losing ground. Google entering the browser vendor market only serves to muddy the waters.

Some fraction of the web developer community was very excited by Google pushing HTML5. Some fraction was very disappointed. Can the community have the power if the community is divided? Maybe Google and Apple are listening only while it is convenient for them and their bottom line. Maybe the HTML5 supporters think they have power because Google's use of power just happens to line up with some of the web development community for the time being.

Personally, I'm very much a supporter of community-based web standards. I'm glad for now that we have Google and Apple blazing ahead with roughly standards-based HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. I certainly don't think we should give Microsoft the keys to the car. They've already shown us where they would drive it, if not deliberately then by incompetence or lack of vision. And I think we also must give credit to Opera and Mozilla. They seem to embrace community driven development. I think they've got our backs.

I do think we probably have little to fear on the CSS and HTML fronts. I think the illusion of community derived standards will continue, with the corporations that actually make the decisions acting mostly benevolently. Occasionally they may err on the side of progress over standardization, but the benefits of that will probably outweigh the problems.

I am much more concerned about JavaScript (JS), especially with how Google is positioning itself. We (web developers) enjoy fairly standardized JavaScript language for the moment, with a lush pasture of JS libraries, user interface (UI) toolkits, etc to choose from. Google has entered the browser market and is fully intending to create a browser-based operating system. I'm not so sure we can trust Google to act in the web development community's interests over its own corporate money-making interests in regards to web applications, specifically client-side JavaScript applications and web applications UI. I think there is a real possibility that Google may create a proprietary JavaScript web applications platform and lure many developers in via a "web standards" carrot, custom (read: proprietary) application toolkits with pre-built functionality, a captive audience, and a clear path to individual app monetization. I think this could create some real fractures in the JavaScript language and potentially even web development as we know it.

I will give a simpler example for my concerns for the future of community driven decisions in the realm of JavaScript and Web Applications UI. There has been some talk of incorporating jQuery as part of HTML5/JavaScript. If you are a Dojo, YUI, or Mootools fan, how would you feel about jQuery being selected as an early winner? What are the chances people will want to use some other JS framework, or Web App UI widgets built for some other JS framework, when jQuery would perform dramatically better because it is actually built into the browser?

It is far from certain, but we may soon find ourselves with far fewer choices as web developers than we have now. Or, maybe Google will "do no evil" and blow all of our minds with great stuff while having a ear in the web development community. I, for one, am watching carefully.