Thoughts on software and life.

Tuesday August 21

The IPhone Is IE4 Again (in a good way)

I've been reading a number of bloggers comparing the iPhone to Internet Explorer 4.0 in a negative way. They are afraid that the iPhone will result in a flurry of websites that are only compatible with a single browser, just as IE4 once did. I have a message for these people: please shut up and stop hurting the web. If you won't ever allow new products to break away from the pack, then we'll never see innovation in web technologies. It is our job to embrace the new and deliver great products for our users, not to hold out on account of some foolish religion.

It is absolutely true that the iPhone and IE4 have a lot in common. IE4 was a seminal product that changed everything. We owe a great debt to Microsoft for that. The IE team at that time was hellbent on putting unprecedented power in the hands of web developers - far more than their competitor Netscape did. They succeeded, and much of what they did turned into the standards we have today. I'll still never forget how blown away I was by IE4 and how it changed my life. It angers me that history is now being re-written to cast IE4 as harmful.

The iPhone is going to have the same effect as IE4, but unfortunately there are a fair amount of web developers who don't care about progress or innovation. The dogma of web standards has blinded them, to the point where they don't even understand how standards come to be in the first place. Do you really expect companies to refrain from releasing new products until a standards body approves, and then for all their competitors to release an identical product at the same time?? Would you like to be held to that process in your work? Companies should be encouraged to release new things, and we should standardize later.

I think part of the reason why Microsoft stopped developing IE is that the developers behind it got sick of being criticized for trying to innovate. Many of them left the IE team and moved over to the XAML project (aka WPF/Silverlight) so they could continue to do great work without being attacked for it. That is a shame, because I would have much rather seen the XAML concepts poured into the HTML/CSS/JavaScript foundation. Meanwhile, the W3C produced jack squat during those same years. This is what we have to thank the Web Standards Project for.

So here we are starting over again with the iPhone. Apple is in a position to deliver non-standard breakthrough technologies to the mobile web. This will certainly involve a period in which Safari is the only browser to support certain features, and I'm sure that will result in a lot of griping. Some people would probably prefer the W3C to start new working groups for mobile HTML, CSS and DOM features, and then wait until 2012 for them to release a final specification. I, for one, would prefer to ship new products last week.

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