The De Facto Web

Opera Software makes a web browser. They’ve accumulated a giant database of web URLs for testing purposes. Recently they analyzed the contents of those pages. The results are very surprising:

  • 33.5% of sites use Flash

  • 78% use JavaScript, but only 4% use Ajax
  • 8% of sites have little “W3C Validated” badges, but only 4% actually pass the W3C’s validators

There’s been a lot of lecturing done, over the past decade, about “web standards” and “the open web” and “the proprietary unweb” and so on. What’s interesting is how much that rhetoric diverges from reality: Eight times as much Flash as Ajax, or even “valid” HTML. Lots of JavaScript, but little of it advanced. A false sense of how many sites actually follow the W3C’s lengthy specifications.

What we’ve been told to think, is different than how things are.

Web standards folks seek to dole blame. In over-long, inaccessible, and even polarizing English.

HTML5 promises to make things more complex and unimplementable, instead of focusing on the basics like clicking. The discussion is lengthy and not very readable, even for fast-reading native English speakers, and is presided over by an uncredited Google staffer with an arbitrary manner.

The “open web” just acting… strange.

Early web software acted upon Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you send; be liberal in what you receive.” Web discussions the past few years have had a streak of intolerance, of not accepting what is seen as “impure”. But the Opera study doesn’t show such authoritarianism in The Real Web.

What we’ve been told to think, is different than how things are. There’s a difference between the volume of speech, and what the volume of people actually believe. That’s what the Opera survey seems to indicate.

Flash is a real part of the World Wide Web today. A major part. Bigger than “web standards”, bigger than Ajax. It doesn’t replace the web. It’s part of the real web, as real people use it.

But here’s the interesting thing. The conservative standardista/openWeb/inGroup position may be anti-Flash, but Adobe is more than Flash, and not anti-standardista.

Adobe’s about publishing — the ability for creative people to communicate. We love publishing. HTML and the W3C, as flawed as they are, are Adobe’s allies. We’re continuing to work on JavaScript. Improving the world to the standardista’s goal, is also Adobe’s goal.

Adobe makes Dreamweaver, not just Flash. InDesign and AfterEffects too. We enable publishing. The more that people can communicate, the better Adobe tends to do.

And we’re not embedding an advertising/surveillance network in your content. No intermediation between you and your audience. It’s free, unencumbered, open publishing… that’s the goal here.

Getting a predictable renderer atop the world’s desktops takes the heat off HTML. It lets HTML be HTML. But if HTML tries to be SWF, it won’t do as well.

My recommendation? Just keep things in a sensible proportion. We need to improve HTML. We also need to improve SWF. But both are real publishing options today. We need to acknowledge both, and not give in to prejudice. Stay open.

That’s my main takeaway from the Opera report. What we’ve been told to think, is different than how things are.

(Sidenote on the Dreamweaver stats: Very few pages produced with Dreamweaver are actually identifiable as such. The Opera study says “MAMA looked at the META ‘Generator’ value to find popular CMS and editor”. But I can’t recall Dreamweaver ever identifying itself in the META-Generator field. Even if they checked for JavaScript routines like mm_swapImage, not all Dreamweaver pages use it, and not all pages which use it came from Dreamweaver. Adobe just provides neutral publishing technology, and it’s up to each creator how they choose to use it. The survey’s material on editors there, I’m not sure what it might really mean.)

More discussion on the still-unfolding Opera study is at Ars Technica and Slashdot today. Jens Brynildsen has a Flash-oriented perspective.

[ Afterword: A few hours later I re-read this, and realized I should provide some authoring context. That's not "Adobe" talking, that's me talking. I wrote it pretty much at a gulp this afternoon at the office. I sit near Scott Fegette, on the Dreamweaver team, and asked him to give it a quick read for any reasons to kill it, but that's the limit of "the corporate voice" on the stuff above. (I didn't ask Scott if he agreed. ;-) I had caught the news via the Ars Technica article last night, made a quick Twitter to stake my claim on the punchline, but then sat down and really read the initial Opera material, and was impressed. Took the day to digest it. Other people, both within Adobe and within the larger ecology, definitely shape my opinions. But many of them might disagree with parts of what I wrote. The words in the essay above are mine, and not Adobe's.]