You Say You Want A (Web) Revolution?

A revolution is all about a mass uprising. To cook up a revolution, you need a few key ingredients:

  • A mass of people with a common cause (it also helps if they’re really pissed off with the status quo).
  • An articulation of the cause, ideally presented in a digest or pamphlet form for easy consumption.
  • And of course, a way out. In other words, a real, tangible way out of the existing status quo.

belgian-revolution The last bullet is key because it’s not enough to just pass off some fantastical scheme to change the world. The way out needs to make sense and be somewhat grounded in reality. In other words, you need to enable and empower the masses. The status quo can really suck but if the masses don’t see a way out and feel confident in it, you’re not going to get that mass uprising.

Notepad.exe Is Mightier Than The Sword

icon_5 Fifteen years ago or so, the Web showed up and almost immediately, the masses were armed. Just about anyone could quickly make sense of HTML. You could create an experience…with graphics! Soon after, you could add sound (.wav files!) and animation (animated GIF’s!) to really create an amazing (at least it felt that way back then) experience. Let’s forget for a second that anyone in the world could visit your creations. Let’s go back to…oh I don’t know…1989. What would it take to create an entire interactive experience that included content, graphics and sound? Forget word processing documents. You can’t really interact with those. You needed development tools and a computer science degree.

After the Internet landed, the only prerequisite was notepad.exe. The creation of software was wrestled away from the object-oriented C pseudo-aristocracy and handed back to the masses. The masses were given a way out, and a true revolution ensued. The brave among us even dipped their toe in Javascript.

The content explosion that became the Internet eventually would evolve even further as non-programmer types slashed and hacked their way through old-school Active Server Pages. Other technologies like Coldfusion and PHP sought to take the masses even further. You didn’t need a computer science degree to change the world.

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and we start to see glimpses of something exciting happening to the Web again. People started to hang around an obscure back alley of Javascript that would eventually redefine the Web experience for good. Google Maps was born ("whoah, what is this?") and Jesse James Garrett (insert Ennio Morricone music here) slapped a label on it: Ajax.

Before you knew it, really exciting things were happening on the web. Web applications were starting to feel like real (i.e. desktop) applications. And the line between the browser and the desktop was getting a whole lot blurrier.

Throughout this Second Coming, various technology leaders began putting forth technologies to truly marry the power and reach of the Web and web services with rich, powerful clients that run on your desktop. In addition, frameworks like JQuery and Prototype have made rich web building a lot easier (thought it’s still pretty hard).

george3britain And so the race has begun to convince the masses to yet again join another revolution. There’s just one problem: there is no way out this time. The scepter has been handed back to the former ruling class. To really create exciting things, you need a computer science degree. Actionscript 3, the backbone of technologies like Flash, Flex and Adobe AIR is a full-blown strongly-typed programming language. Microsoft’s Silverlight and WPF simply arm the masses that are already building .Net desktop applications.

Even Javascript, once the playground of curious hackers, has been hijacked by computer scientists. People are actually programming properly on Javascript today, which sucks for everybody else.

Webmasters Unite!

I’m not going to be delusional and presume that all this new stuff doesn’t require some additional skills. The interactions are undoubtedly more complex. Yes, the brave among us are free to venture forth and learn these new skills. What I’m asserting here is that the keepers of the Web platforms of the future: Adobe, Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple and others have failed to think through making their platforms accessible to the non-programmer types that made the Web what it is today. In other words, they’ve failed to enable and empower the masses. The guy who knew how to edit HTML and fiddle with Javascript is completely turned off by the Web of today. There is no avenue of empowerment.

How important is empowerment? Why not just let the computer scientists do their thing? It’s important because when you empower the masses, you discover new conduits towards invention that you would never otherwise reveal. The Web today is a great example of this.

"Take Everything You’ve Learned And Chuck It Out The Window"

So what can lead to empowerment? Let’s revisit the good’ol tags that got everybody giddy in the first place. Here’s how you drop an image into a web page:

  • <img src="[the location of your image file goes here]" />

I’m of course excluding a whole bunch of optional attributes (width, height, etc.). Now let’s see how you drop images in Adobe Flex:

  • <mx:Image id="loader1" source="logo.jpg"/>

Microsoft’s XAML is a real beauty. At first it seems somewhat innocuous:

  • <Image Width="200" Source="myimage.jpg"/>

But it turns out this is the bad way to do it (i.e. it uses up more application memory). Here’s the proper way (comments are Microsoft’s, not mine):

  • <Image Width="200">
        <BitmapImage DecodePixelWidth="200" 
         UriSource="myImage.jpg" />

Now here’s the near-miss from Mozilla’s XUL:

  • <image src="images/banner.jpg"/>

So problem number one: the mass
es have a already invested a ton of knowledge in an existing markup language. Yes, we’ll no doubt have to augment it to accommodate all the new fancy stuff, but why mess with what people already know (and technical reasons do not count)?

Weapons Of Mass Adoption

Beyond leveraging what people already know, the real damage is caused by abandoning the philosophy that made the web so accessible to so many in the first place. Let’s play God and create a few new tags:

  • <shoppingCart>
  • <minimize action="toTray">
  • <audio href="…">
  • <video href="..>">
  • <map zipcode="10017" height="…" width="…">
  • <slideshow> … </slideshow> (used like the <ol> or <ul> tags.
  • <div draggable="true">
  • <image resizeable="false">
  • <widget href="…" width="…" height="…">

You get the idea. On top of this, you could implement existing web code to do some new and exciting things. An RSS feed? It’s a perfect alerting system. Just add a couple of attributes that turn on intermittent desktop alerting as new updates.

IZMIR-DEMONSTRATION-749159 There are many other examples. I’m sure programmers will scoff at the "gross oversimplification" of these suggestions. But guess what, that’s what the Web 1.0 revolution was all about: gross oversimplification. The brilliance of the invention was not some algorithm or infrastructure change. It was the handful of readable instructions that made the web accessible to a much broader audience.

The Adobe’s and Microsoft’s of the world should take heed. If you really want a revolution to happen, start paying attention to the masses that do not know a lick of object-oriented programming and start handing them the weapons. Yeh they’ll fumble at first, but before you know it you’ve got an army.

6 Comments You Say You Want A (Web) Revolution?

  1. TJ Downes

    When vehicles came out they were powered by domesticated animals. Anyone with the motivation to domesticate an animal, or the cash to buy one, could properly build, own and maintain these vehicles. They were very simple and didn’t require a lot of knowledge.
    However, as time went on the demand for higher performance and more speed led to more complex technologies, such as steam-powered engines and then combustion engines. Due to a demand for more better fuel consumption, more control over specific components and other various reasons, eventually computers were integrated into them.
    The moral of the story being that things evolve and in order to make them better and more useful, they may become more complex than the average person can learn to build and maintain on their own.
    That being said, I think it is important that there are user-friendly tools that help the average user do things like build websites and publish multimedia, but then again these already exist. Therefore, the point of this entire article escapes me.

  2. Richard Ziade

    You raise some good points, but just because that’s how the auto industry evolved – and eventually alienated many b/c cars are far more complex than horses – doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. Precedent does not equal “the way things are.”
    The fact remains that the usability and accessibility of a lot of this power can improve greatly if the small few that hold the keys to these platforms actually go out of their way to think about the curious but non-professional layman.

  3. TJ Downes

    Hi Richard, i certainly see and understand your point. I think we, as humans, tend to do this with everything we do. I believe, to some degree, that you are right. However, I believe that these companies are developing the tools that make it possible for you and I to build the tools for the non-professional layman.

  4. Gheorghe Matei

    Do you want a modern REvolution?
    Today, at the beginning of the third millennium, the discussions in the software world are about the new forms of the old things! The current software model is a danger for the human society. Why not a fundamental invention in software! This is a modern revolution.
    SOA, Semantic Web, Data Center, “data aware”, and so on, all are a false direction in the software world!!!!! I would like to see I talk about a fundamental invention in software, from now forever. It’s a big waste of time and money to go on the current software model!
    Today, the beginning of the third millennium!

  5. Gheorghe Matei

    The history lesson is not just a lesson for the future. We can talk about TRANSISTOR! Who can imagine the modern society without transistor????? From now forever, ….. the Informational Individual!!!!!!!!
    The uprising???? No need! A business man with INTUITION is all.
    Note: My name is a spam.


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