Breaking the web forward

Safari is holding back the web. It is the new IE, after all. In contrast, Chrome is pushing the web forward so hard that it’s starting to break. Meanwhile web developers do nothing except moan and complain. The only thing left to do is to pick our poison.

Safari is the new IE

Recently there was yet another round of “Safari is the new IE” stories. Once Jeremy’s summary and a short discussion cleared my mind I finally figured out that Safari is not IE, and that Safari’s IE-or-not-IE is not the worst problem the web is facing.

Perry Sun argues that for developers, Safari is crap and outdated, emulating the old IE of fifteen years ago in this respect. He also repeats the theory that Apple is deliberately starving Safari of features in order to protect the app store, and thus its bottom line. We’ll get back to that.

The allegation that Safari is holding back web development by its lack of support for key features is not new, but it’s not true, either. Back fifteen years ago IE held back the web because web developers had to cater to its outdated technology stack. “Best viewed with IE” and all that. But do you ever see a “Best viewed with Safari” notice? No, you don’t. Another browser takes that special place in web developers’ hearts and minds.

Chrome is the new IE, but in reverse

Jorge Arango fears we’re going back to the bad old days with “Best viewed in Chrome.” Chris Krycho reinforces this by pointing out that, even though Chrome is not the standard, it’s treated as such by many web developers.

“Best viewed in Chrome” squares very badly with “Safari is the new IE.” Safari’s sad state does not force web developers to restrict themselves to Safari-supported features, so it does not hold the same position as IE.

So I propose to lay this tired old meme to rest. Safari is not the new IE. If anything it’s the new Netscape 4.

Meanwhile it is Chrome that is the new IE, but in reverse.

Break the web forward

Back in the day, IE was accused of an embrace, extend, and extinguish strategy. After IE6 Microsoft did nothing for ages, assuming it had won the web. Thanks to web developers taking action in their own name for the first (and only) time, IE was updated once more and the web moved forward again.

Google learned from Microsoft’s mistakes and follows a novel embrace, extend, and extinguish strategy by breaking the web and stomping on the bits. Who cares if it breaks as long as we go forward. And to hell with backward compatibility.

Back in 2015 I proposed to stop pushing the web forward, and as expected the Chrome devrels were especially outraged at this idea. It never went anywhere. (Truth to tell: I hadn’t expected it to.)

I still think we should stop pushing the web forward for a while until we figure out where we want to push the web forward to — but as long as Google is in charge that won’t happen. It will only get worse.

On alert

A blog storm broke out over the decision to remove alert(), confirm() and prompt(), first only the cross-origin variants, but eventually all of them. Jeremy and Chris Coyier already summarised the situation, while Rich Harris discusses the uses of the three ancient modals, especially when it comes to learning JavaScript.

With all these articles already written I will only note that, if the three ancient modals are truly as horrendous a security issue as Google says they are it took everyone a bloody long time to figure that out. I mean, they turn 25 this year.

Although it appears Firefox and Safari are on board with at least the cross-origin part of the proposal, there is no doubt that it’s Google that leads the charge.

From Google’s perspective the ancient modals have one crucial flaw quite apart from their security model: they weren’t invented there. That’s why they have to be replaced by — I don’t know what, but it will likely be a very complicated API.

Complex systems and arrogant priests rule the web

Thus the new embrace, extend, and extinguish is breaking backward compatibility in order to make the web more complicated. Nolan Lawson puts it like this:

we end up with convoluted specs like Service Worker that you need a PhD to understand, and yet we still don't have a working <dialog> element.

In addition, Google can be pretty arrogant and condescending, as Chris Ferdinandi points out.

The condescending “did you actually read it, it’s so clear” refrain is patronizing AF. It’s the equivalent of “just” or “simply” in developer documentation.

I read it. I didn’t understand it. That’s why I asked someone whose literal job is communicating with developers about changes Chrome makes to the platform.

This is not isolated to one developer at Chrome. The entire message thread where this change was surfaced is filled with folks begging Chrome not to move forward with this proposal because it will break all-the-things.

If you write documentation or a technical article and nobody understands it, you’ve done a crappy job. I should know; I’ve been writing this stuff for twenty years.

Extend, embrace, extinguish. And use lots of difficult words.

Patience is a virtue

As a reaction to web dev outcry Google temporarily halted the breaking of the web. That sounds great but really isn’t. It’s just a clever tactical move.

I saw this tactic in action before. Back in early 2016 Google tried to break the de-facto standard for the mobile visual viewport that I worked very hard to establish. I wrote a piece that resonated with web developers, whose complaints made Google abandon the plan — temporarily. They tried again in late 2017, and I again wrote an article, but this time around nobody cared and the changes took effect and backward compatibility was broken.

So the three ancient modals still have about 12 to 18 months to live. Somewhere in late 2022 to early 2023 Google will try again, web developers will be silent, and the modals will be gone.

The pursuit of appiness

But why is Google breaking the web forward at such a pace? And why is Apple holding it back?

Safari is kept dumb to protect the app store and thus revenue. In contrast, the Chrome team is pushing very hard to port every single app functionality to the browser. Ages ago I argued we should give up on this, but of course no one listened.

When performing Valley Kremlinology, it is useful to see Google policies as stemming from a conflict between internal pro-web and anti-web factions. We web developers mainly deal with the pro-web faction, the Chrome devrel and browser teams. On the other hand, the Android team is squarely in the anti-web camp.

When seen in this light the pro-web camp’s insistence on copying everything appy makes excellent sense: if they didn’t Chrome would lag behind apps and the Android anti-web camp would gain too much power. While I prefer the pro-web over the anti-web camp, I would even more prefer the web not to be a pawn in an internal Google power struggle. But it has come to that, no doubt about it.

Solutions?

Is there any good solution? Not really.

Jim Nielsen feels that part of the issue is the lack of representation of web developers in the standardization process. That sounds great but is proven not to work.

Three years ago Fronteers and I attempted to get web developers represented and were met with absolute disinterest. Nobody else cared even one shit, and the initiative sank like a stone.

So a hypothetical web dev representative in W3C is not going to work. Also, the organisational work would involve a lot of unpaid labour, and I, for one, am not willing to do it again. Neither is anyone else. So this is not the solution.

And what about Firefox? Well, what about it? Ten years ago it made a disastrous mistake by ignoring the mobile web for way too long, then it attempted an arrogant and uninformed come-back with Firefox OS that failed, and its history from that point on is one long slide into obscurity. That’s what you get with shitty management.

Pick your poison

So Safari is trying to slow the web down. With Google’s move-fast-break-absofuckinglutely-everything axiom in mind, is Safari’s approach so bad?

Regardless of where you feel the web should be on this spectrum between Google and Apple, there is a fundamental difference between the two.

We have the tools and procedures to manage Safari’s disinterest. They’re essentially the same as the ones we deployed against Microsoft back in the day — though a fundamental difference is that Microsoft was willing to talk while Apple remains its old haughty self, and its “devrels” aren’t actually allowed to do devrelly things such as managing relations with web developers. (Don’t blame them, by the way. If something would ever change they’re going to be our most valuable internal allies — just as the IE team was back in the day.)

On the other hand, we have no process for countering Google’s reverse embrace, extend, and extinguish strategy, since a section of web devs will be enthusiastic about whatever the newest API is. Also, Google devrels talk. And talk. And talk. And provide gigs of data that are hard to make sense of. And refer to their proprietary algorithms that “clearly” show X is in the best interest of the web — and don’t ask questions! And make everything so fucking complicated that we eventually give up and give in.

So pick your poison. Shall we push the web forward until it’s broken, or shall we break it by inaction? What will it be? Privately, my money is on Google. So we should say goodbye to the old web while we still can.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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