Browsers face innovator's dilemma

"When it comes to Web standards they're fairly well defined. What we need is for the browser vendors to implement the standards fully and not do a lot of innovation on the side."

--Jon von Tetzchner, CEO, Opera Software

Innovate or follow the standards? That's the point of tension right now for the browser makers, who have all pledged allegiance to W3C standards, yet are tempted to jump the gun, adding features that aren't yet standards - and may never be.

I spoke with von Tetzchner recently as I researched a story on Browsers, standards and the state of the Web.

So, how do you innovate and follow standards at the same time? "You have a lot of possibilities to innovate on the user interface. You can provide code that is a lot more efficient. There's a lot you can do without locking people in," he says.

But, he adds, "There's still a lot of temptation for people to try to do things on their own." Some of those things, such as Microsoft's Silverlight, haven't gotten much traction in the market. But other features might - especially when it's not clear to Web page developers that some cool new features are nonstandard. While a browser vendor may put forward that new feature for consideration as a standard, developers who code support for a nonstandard feature into their sites may find that it will break if the feature's implementation changes as the standard evolves - or if those elements are replaced with an entirely different mechanism.

We've had enough of that. The reality of the Web today is that, unless you use Internet Explorer as your default browser, you probably need more than one browser to surf the Web. While Microsoft's IE still dominates the market, the one browser to rule them all approach has faded a bit with the rise in popularity of competing browsers such as Firefox and Safari. Both are built on top of  open source rendering engines and generally support W3C standards.

As a user I subscribe to the pencil cup approach to browsing: I have several browsers installed and choose the best 'pencil' for the task at hand. Currently I use Chrome for Google apps; Internet Explorer for IE-centric Web sites, such as those that rely on ActiveX; and Firefox for general browsing.

But to von Tetzchner that defeats the purpose of having standards in the first place. One browser may be faster than another. It may have a different user interface. But any browser should be able to render any page consistently.

"When it comes to the content you'd like it to look at feel the same. That's what we've been seeing with Mozilla, Opera and Apple. You shouldn't have to select a certain browser because of the content. That's not he way it's supposed to be."

But that is, alas, still the current reality of the Web. I await the day that I can safely put away my pencil cup.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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