Building upon untested assumptions

This morning webstandards.org printed an “Interview with Ian Hickson, editor of the HTML 5 specification”. A particularly disturbing section:

Bruce Lawson: You’ve said that HTML 5 is in “direct competition with other technologies intended for applications deployed over the Web, in particular Flash and Silverlight”. Why is it so important to do so, and isn’t it a lost cause given that those techologies are already out there while HTML 5 is not yet complete?

Ian Hickson: HTML 4 is also in direct competition with proprietary technologies, and it’s winning, hands-down. HTML5 is just continuing the battle, because if we don’t keep up, then the proprietary technologies will gain ground.

Bruce Lawson: What are the main philosophies of HTML 5?

Ian Hickson: Backwards-compatibility, incremental baby steps, defining error handling. Those are the main philosophies.

All day long I’ve been trying to puzzle out how someone could fit those sentences together, what type of ideas must first be assumed in order to make such an utterance conceivable, much less worth saying in an interview.

Tweezing apart some of the apparent assumptions of anyone able to make such a statement:

  • “HTML 4″, as a cross-company hypertext specification, is said to be somehow directly comparable to a common clientside capability such as Flash. How can the HTML 4 spec compete with its own extension mechanism? What must you assume before being able to craft such a sentence?
  • Aside from issues of logical levels and comparing apples to oranges, there is the apparent assumption that “anything Flash can do, my favored runtimes must do, better”. Why? If Flash has added many capabilities to today’s World Wide Web, why must people billing themselves as “The Open Web” fight it? He seems to think there’s obvious reason, but there’s a step missing in the description.
  • Perhaps most importantly of all, he’s assuming that a hypertext specification should become a multimedia/RIA specification. This is dangerous to the entire HTML ecology. Even the current specs are confusing, after they’ve spun out styling, object model, even image formats into separate specs. Stuffing an additional drawing spec and a storage spec and animation and 3D and what-all into the hypertext spec weighs it down even further. I think he is espousing a recipe for ruin, and I don’t know why, because he doesn’t publicly examine his assumptions.
  • The mention of Silverlight is intriguing. This cross-browser plugin has had no realworld effect. Silverlight does not realistically threaten Chrome. HTML5 and Silverlight perhaps compete in blogosphere mindshare. Or perhaps he’s just raising it as an “M$ boogeyman” to better bash Flash. There’s something that prompts him to include Silverlight in his assertion, but it is not clear what assumptions underlay its mention.
  • Why even bother to say “and it’s winning, hands-down”? Is there a “winning”? If so, how do you measure it? What type of boosterism could produce such an utterance?
  • Bruce directly asked whether this was “a lost cause” because Flash was already in use while HTML5 was still in committee. Ian ignored this vital question of how to bring a concept out into the world, making a capability genuinely useful to people. It seems he assumes it’s not important enough to think about.
  • He assumes that “HTML5″ is “continuing a battle”. Perhaps he knows what the battle is. The rest of us have to guess at his assumptions.
  • He assumes that there is something called “proprietary technologies”. I assume he does not assume this includes Apple’s Webkit governance, or Google’s ubiquitous web beacons.
  • The “main philosophies of HTML 5″ include a helpful point: defining what browsers “should” do when they encounter improper content. But “incremental baby steps”!? It’s more like a wild jump to Rich Internet Applications. Maybe the assumption here is “No one will challenge me on this jive”.

I’ve been trying to see the world through Ian’s eyes, but I cannot — he has built a rhetorical structure atop untested assumptions, instead of establishing upon common ground.

What would I like to see?

I’d like to see some clear discussion on the appropriate scope of a spec that any hypertext implementation should be able to easily reach. If CSS is a separate specification, then why isn’t RIA?

I want to see more “standards” discussions about the needs of people who actually publish to the web. We should not have had the last ten years of people working around browser differences. No more!

I wouldn’t mind seeing standalone RIA specs in the SMIL, HTML+TIME, SVG mode. These live or die on their own, and do not threaten the extraordinarily-useful HTML spec itself.

I want to see “open web” evangelists find ways to bring their functionality into other browser brands. Instead of worrying about microshare, figure a way to make cheap codecs available to any person in any browser today. Browsers were opened up to third-party rendering long ago — don’t fight to turn back the clock. Stop railing against cross-browser functionality; stop thinking you must own it all yourself; if you say you’re for “open video” then act it. A campaign for a Theora plugin would hold more relevance.

(The proposed fragmentation of Today’s Web doesn’t worry me as much… Flash makes too much sense for people to abandon it, and Adobe thrives by uniting fragmented silos. Those content developers who don’t see through the hype will be the ones to pay the price. But increasing fragmentation and siloing would not be a good thing for HTML in general, which is why I’m writing this essay.)

What do I think is really going on?

I think it’s a corporate powerplay to “bless as standard” runtimes from the corporations pushing the multimedia syntax. There’s no angle for realworld developers in VIDEO tag and the rest — their proponents shy away from any discussion of how these might someday be supported and useful in the world. This campaign is not for content developers or their audiences. It’s a marketing play, like how Microsoft lobbied for OOXML.

That’s why it doesn’t matter that VIDEO leaves codecs unaddressed… why it doesn’t really matter that most consumers use Internet Explorer. This is not really about content developers. It’s about browser vendors. They can make any content requirements they wish upon publishers, once their engine is “blessed” for VIDEO tag.

Some vendors sell proprietary hardware. Some sell proprietary data about what you watch to advertisers. I suspect either would be happy to fragment Flash capabilities if they could. Instead they’ve found other ways to construct a walled garden around audiences. And it’s easy enough to find fanboys as footsoldiers.

Flash scares them because it opens things up too much, levels the playing field. That’s what I think is really going on.

Summary: The HTML5 editor says he’s fighting a battle against Flash. But he doesn’t explain why, so it’s hard for us to help him get better.

[Comments: I'm not really keen on diluting this conversation with guesses about what he may have meant, thanks in advance.]