There is nothing new under the sun, right? History repeats time and again. It’s iterative, like some sort of Agile approach. While it is tempting to challenge this notion when it comes to something as cutting edge as the craft of Software Development where marketeers would have you believing that we are on the cusp of revolution and that the truly new is just around the bend, fact is even software is constrained by the fundamentals of physics. Interestingly, after eighteen years in the software industry, in the very midst of the promise of the new, it’s pretty easy to see how someone might arrive at the conclusion that old is new. And just like Agile development and its iterative nature, life seems to turn in cycles. Just as with that much-vaunted SDLC delivery pattern, we can only hope that we improve the quality and completeness of the things we are working on or through. The beginning of 2011 finds us very much in the next iteration.
I came to web development in 1995 while working in the Product Development group at CompuServe. The company as a culture had taken to the web with a passion in the couple years prior, but none of us had really seen it as a serious threat to the health of the business itself. We were, in many respects, the original online service. My group was responsible for supporting an utterly proprietary set of server software and protocols (anyone remember HMI?) which were consumed by thick clients running on the desktop. Our highly curated content was accessible at a premium and only via our network.
This whole “web thing” was free and completely out of control. How could it possibly represent a threat to our finely manicured for-profit eco-systems? In 1995, somewhere in the long dim corridors of upper management, someone must have seen a change. AOL, our chief competitor, had been keen to integrate their service with the web by implementing a browser in their client application. We began to notice a loss of membership.
With seeming impending irrelevance in the face of Mr. Berners-Lee, the game was afoot. The Product Development group was given the mandate to grab a web technology and make something cool happen. At the time I was largely a Visual Basic and C developer responsible for tools implementations, reporting, training, and carrying a pager as third-tier support (the usual Junior Developer stuff) and at the time Flaming Text was pretty cool, so I decided the logical place to start was with HTML since whipping up reports seemed like a no-brainer and we had this beta product from Microsoft called Active Server Pages.
I remember the frustration I experienced at the hands of the two erstwhile techs. Coding HTML by hand was a total mental shift from the WYSIWYG of Visual Studio and writing VBScript, a nightmare to debug, felt like the worst kind of rinse/repeat troubleshooting as you tweaked and tweaked to get your scripts to run without the benefit of a strongly typed compiler and handy IDE. I began to grow suspicious of my choice as I watched my good friend and fellow CompuServer David Hays get to play with this nifty Java programming language and something called an Applet, which looked very much like the forms development I had come to know and love.
As history will testify, CompuServe never did pull out of its hubris-driven nose dive, with AOL cleaning our clocks and then coming in to buy us out and clean house in 1997. But David and I, and many people like us, did go on to enjoy the rest of the bubble years, sinking into the luxuriant recesses of many a candidate technology and framework. ASP, which should have died, flourished. Applets, not so much. But Java soared as it began to reign supreme on the server-side and Microsoft continued to operate their “embrace and extend” approach to the Internet.
But all the while HTML formed the basis of movement forward even if browsers could never quite get their implementations lined up. Actually, this was such a tremendous nuisance as developers were forced to spin browser checks and conditional code and formatting. So much so that entire technologies such as Shockwave, Flash, and even SVG sought to standardize the browser experience into a single, stationary target. Even Microsoft seemed to sense the opportunity to wrest control of browser development away from the likes of HTML and its myriad “standard” implementations by bringing Silverlight into the mix (an absolute joy to work with, BTW).
Well, HTML5. But how can this be? How many hours of development time have been given over to so many different presentation technologies in lieu of the mire of the HTML standard implementations across all those browsers?
Enter iOS and Android and a level of crack-happiness unparalleled in the history of gadgetry. Imagine the power of a movement that can take fifteen years of evolution in the client software of the web and simply call a halt. And in the stead of so many candidates, these mobile platforms would posit that HTML5, a specification that won’t even enter its recommendation status for another year or more, will be the preferred content format. It seems to me that web apps have just suffered the most massive hard reboot in Internet history. But even Microsoft, that leviathan of technology purveyors, has, in the face of their having just launched their own client development technology, acknowledged the dominance of HTML5 on the mobile client.
And here I am in 1995 again … So, perhaps I am no longer a Junior Developer but only a fool operates in ignorance of the currents of their craft. And this current is very strong indeed. I cracked a book on HTML5.
Actually, I added several promising titles to my O’Reilly Safari favorites (oh, to think of the thousands of dollars I paid for technical books in the ’90s) as well as some very good videos. I highly recommend HTML5 Mobile Web Development by Jake Carter. It is a grand survey of the HTML5 promise in solid fifteen to thirty minute chunks with lots of sample code that actually works.
My initial thoughts regarding HTML5 is that the moniker is misleading. There are some fairly consequential additions in the elements department (especially the “audio” and “video” elements) and a few deprecations. Some trimming of the fat on attributes and general streamlining of mark-up and some nifty in-built formatting and validation capabilities. Geo-location support is massive as well if you’re concern is to establish presence-specific content. And, of course, having local storage (cookies on crack) is a big deal as well. But the major additions in terms of rendering User Interfaces come in the form of the “canvas” element and the inclusion of the SVG and CSS3 specifications under its implementation umbrella.
My point is, however, that SVG was its own spec and has been languishing on the periphery since its initial release. Its inclusion in the HTML5 specification seems like a coups for its adherents but those numbers are tiny in comparison to Flash’s or even Silverlight’s developer base. And it seems that the browser implementations are fairly flakey in comparison to even Adobe’s now aging implementation. And no one, and I mean no one, is even talking about the inclusion of SVG in the standard for commercial considerations. It is very much in the domain of science departments and visualization projects the institutional world over.
An argument could be made that, as an applications development platform, SVG rounds out the many new ways in which HTML5 deals with its elements (formatting, validation, etc.), by providing for visually rich experiences using vector graphics and I would certainly join the throng in saying so. But no one is. Case in point, the excellent video series I mentioned above makes practically no, indeed I think none at all, mention of SVG as it conducts its HTML5 tour de force.
So, now, rather than choosing your preferred plug-in to write standardized code across a variety of platforms in the vein of Flash or Silverlight, we will now need to select a specific browser to target and we are once again at the whim of consumers and their buy-in to particular browsers rather than their willingness to wait the fifteen seconds it takes to install a plug-in.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been to the mountain and I love the idea of a standards-based approach to web application development, which is ultimately the intent of the group that originally posited the HTML5 specification. I’ve been at this game too long to not recognize the promise. And I fully intend to get cracking on a new round of apps targeting mobile platforms but even then, as things stand, you can only get native performance from using native coding tools and environments which puts us back in the problem space HTML and the many technologies it spawned sought to propel us away from. HTML5 is a reset to be certain even if it goes far beyond the scope of its namesake and is inappropriately named. But it seems that, yet again, in the words of the Bard, “what’s past is prologue”.