TPAC: The Morning After

By Michael Kay on November 04, 2010 at 02:18p.m.

I'm feeling very angry with myself this morning - angry that I wasn't angry yesterday, during the TPAC plenary meeting. Angry that no-one else was angry; as several people remarked from the platform, it was an incredibly quiet meeting with almost no public dissent. And yet we should all be furious.

Yesterday the browser vendors showed us some cool stuff that we will soon be able to do on the web. Text that runs at an angle, boxes with round corners, logos that spin, graphics that pulse to the beat of the music, forms that (wow!) check that you've entered a valid date. And everyone tweeted "Wow, that's cool". Well, it's not cool. It's a tragedy, and I'm angry about it.

What we saw yesterday was the crudest possible demonstration of the power base of the browser vendors. We don't get to decide whether users can see boxes with round corners or logos that spin - the browser vendors get to decide it. They get to decide what date formats we can use when filling in forms. They get to decide that we can use ABCnotation but not MusicXML, which means we can listen to folk music but not to classical music. Sure, the browser is programmable; but they've decided we can write any program we like so long as it's in Javascript. What about people who want to write client-side software in XSLT 2.0? The browser vendors get to decide whether that's cool or not. What about people who want to do linked data using RDF? The browser vendors decide.

For twenty years this industry was dominated by IBM. Their dominance was broken by the open systems movement; but instead of the open systems movement taking control, they allowed Microsoft to take over the seat of power while no-one was watching. Then for twenty years Microsoft controlled our destiny, until the open source movement once again gave the community some influence over its own future. What we saw yesterday is that control is now in the hands of a cabal of four or five browser vendors who between them are going to decide the experience that billions of people will get from the web. They are the style police, they decide what's cool: they decide what kind of typographical effects we can see, what kind of music we can listen to, what kind of programming language we can write in.

We should be angry about it, and I'm ashamed that yesterday, no-one was. Like crowds saluting a great dictator, everyone just parroted "Wow, cool, man!". We hummed their tune. W3C, who should be championing the openness of the web, instead allowed the junta to take the platform. I should have got up and had a rant from the microphone, and all I managed was a lonely tweet. Sorry: I let you down.

Meanwhile, enjoy playing with your new toys. Those in charge are hoping they will keep you quiet.