Innovation and Interoperability

Jeremy Keith is a bright guy, but more than that, he’s a good writer. Brilliance doesn’t matter much if you’re not able to express it in a way that inspires and teaches others; Jeremy’s periodic knack for extended metaphor and clever turn of phrase makes his ideas seem palatable and exciting.

This is a long way of saying that his most recent post, Year Zero, is both completely in tune with my thoughts on the matter (with one small exception), and incredibly well written. Reading it is worth your time.

The exception is this: Jeremy notes Alex Russell’s central theme (“In order for the future to be better by a large amount, it must be different by a large amount.”), and agrees with it. Sort of.

Alex is absolutely right. But here’s the thing… I don’t want the future to change by a large amount. The present isn’t that bad.”

I find this to be a shortsighted conclusion. The present certainly isn’t that bad, because people like Alex and Jeremy have done a tremendous amount of work with the technology we have available to show us how to level out the capabilities of the browsers we currently rely on. The playing field is relatively even; it’s work to create a quality web site or application, no doubt about it, but it’s not like the early days, where “optimized for X” was a way of life. Insofar as this is true, I think Alex’s concerns are overblown, and Jeremy’s position makes sense.

That said, the game we’re playing is becoming less and less suited to the field we’ve worked so hard to create. As we continue to inject more complex behavior into what we create on top of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, it seems obvious that things will need to change substantially at some point to support the next iteration of experience on the internet. Things like Google Gears enable interactions we simply couldn’t do before, and I’m not naïve enough to think that Gears is the absolute edge, beyond which lies nothing. The future is coming, and will be markedly different regardless of how much we like our understanding of the here and now.

I think Alex is right to push for us to make the best use of the present in order to mold the future for ourselves in the most open way possible. As I’ve said, I believe the future will be different, it’s only a question of how. We should, then, value experimentation from browser vendors. I agree with Alex’s point here, the W3C is not an innovative body, and getting something out into the market for developers to play with is really the only way to see what’s going to stick, and what’s worth implementing right.

But in that quest for a betterly different tomorrow, I think that Jeremy is right to value interoperability over innovation. I don’t want a return to the bad old days of the browser wars. And despite his rhetoric, I don’t think Alex does either.