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Issue № 56

Why Gecko Matters: What Netscape’s Upcoming Browser Will Mean to the Web

by Published in Browsers, Industry, State of the Web

Designed to fully comply with five key web standards (HTML 4, CSS-1, XML, JavaScript/EcmaScript, and the W3C DOM), Gecko was developed by the open-source Mozilla group over a period of nearly two years. During that same time period, Microsoft unleashed its Internet Explorer 5 browser for Windows.

IE5 failed to fully comply with key web standards (notably XML and the DOM). In fact, IE5 “extended” these technologies in suspect ways, while failing to fully support the standards that were already on the table. Nevertheless, Microsoft’s browser rapidly eroded Netscape’s market share, due to the dominance of the Windows platform, the strength of Microsoft’s marketing, and the bugginess and (frankly) wretched standards support of Netscape’s aging Navigator 4. The absorption of Netscape Communications into America Online did nothing to stem Netscape Navigator’s decline.

At this moment in web history, Opera Software is preparing to release Opera 4.0, a browser whose dedication to standards like CSS has won many supporters. And Microsoft is about to unveil IE5 for Mac OS, which, unlike its Windows counterpart, has been painstakingly engineered to fully comply with HTML 4 and CSS-1. Upon its release within the next few weeks, IE5 for Mac OS will be the most standards-compliant browser we’ve had.

In such an environment, with Netscape’s marketshare reported to be dismally low, and with most professional web developers coding to the quirks and particularities of IE4 and IE5, is Netscape’s effort too little, too late? Or is it a major breakthrough that may change the way we use and build the web? Zeldman articulates The Web Standards Project’s position:

Gecko is (almost) here.

It’s too soon to pass out cigars, but it looks like Netscape’s Gecko will soon be a reality. And that’s good news for everyone who builds or uses the web — and all who will use it in the future. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: we’ve been waiting a long time for this browser. So long, that some have stopped waiting altogether.

Slow bakin’ makes good eatin’.

The Web Standards Project knew that, in doing the right thing, Netscape was taking a tremendous risk. You can’t hurry great engineering, particularly when something is being designed from the ground up.

We knew that the Mozilla project would take time, and that during that time, Netscape would be open to the perception that it had “lost the browser war,” “fallen behind” and so on. We applauded them for taking that risk, especially in a market like this one, where the curve from initial concept to market leader to failed company seems to take fifteen minutes.

We didn’t know it would take this long, but it takes what it takes. If the result is a browser that fully complies with HTML 4, CSS-1, XML, JavaScript (EcmaScript) and the W3C DOM, it won’t matter how long it took to get there.

What Gecko means to webmakers.

If Gecko delivers what it promises — and if other browser makers follow Netscape’s lead here — the fundamental benefit is that it will enable us to write to standards instead of authoring to the deficiencies and quirks of various browsers.

It’s impossible to overstate how important that is, and what a major change it will represent.

Historically, we’ve had two choices:

Either we limit ourselves to the bare rudiments of what the web can be (HTML 3.2, gif images, and the occasional PERL script).

Or we jump through hoops, achieving more advanced web development by authoring to a variety of incomplete (and incompatible) browser implementations, and using scripting to serve the appropriate version to each browser. This is authoring to the browser. It’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, it’s frustrating, and even with a team of brilliant programmers, you almost always mess up somewhere and leave somebody out of the loop.

With a limited budget, many times web companies or their clients will end up consciously accepting the fact that they can’t support Linux users, or Mac users, or the visually impaired, or folks with older browsers. That’s wrong, of course, but it happens because authoring to each incompatible environment takes time and money, and nobody has enough of either.

Companies have become so discouraged by this process that many times they’ll use things like Flash, not as a special effect or an add-on, but to author an entire site. And not because Flash is groovy, but because it will work for anyone who downloads it, no matter what browser they’re using.

So, for several years, we’ve all been sharing a level of insanity and accepting it as “the limitations of the medium,” when in fact it’s merely been a failure on the part of browser makers to support common standards they all helped to create.

With a standards-compliant browser, you’re not authoring to incompatibilities, you’re authoring to commonalities. That’s a huge difference. If all browsers fully support core standards, the web can work for everyone (because the standards are designed to include everyone), and we can spend more time developing concepts, content, and web-based applications, instead of patching tires.

If Gecko delivers the goods, it will be a revolutionary advance away from the bad old days we’re still stuck in. But it’s important to state again that all browser makers have to support these standards. If Netscape stands alone, web users and web builders will still be stuck in an untenable position.

Does the dominance of IE5 make it harder to benefit from Gecko and write standards-compliant web pages?

What makes it hard to write standards-compliant pages is the fact that browsers don’t support the standards yet.

If the dominance of IE5 makes it harder to write fully standards-compliant pages, the absence of any fully standards-compliant browser makes it impossible. So if Netscape comes out with a fully standards-compliant browser, that’s a major step toward a sane web.

The question really comes down to, “If Gecko fully supports standards, but Netscape’s is no longer the dominant browser,  will developers write to the standards anyway?”

My answer is, they will, but not immediately. There will be a transition period, as we’ve always had on the web. There will be more fragmentation during this transition. On commercial sites, clients and their advisors on the development end will make decisions about who they need to support.

This was true even when Netscape made the dominant browser. The whole web didn’t start using frames and JavaScript the minute these technologies became available. It took time.

I don’t know how long the transition period will take. Much depends on what other browser makers do. Microsoft could seize the opportunity to catch up, or they could “wait and see.” Hopefully all browser makers realize that this only works if everybody is on the same page — if everybody fully supports the same core standards.

There’s one other aspect to the question, which is, will Microsoft’s browser remain dominant? It seems that way, but nobody really knows.

If companies like IBM, Red Hat, and Sun are endorsing Gecko — and if that endorsement means they are actually using it — it could make a huge difference. Remember, normal people don’t make decisions about these things. They use what’s on their desktop. And business people, who deploy browsers throughout the enterprise, can be influenced by things like IBM and Red Hat endorsement. AOL could also flick a switch and move all its members to Gecko. It could happen. Nobody knows.

Speaking for The Web Standards Project, we don’t care who wins and who loses in this next round. All we care about is full implementation of core W3C standards in all browsers. The Web Standards Project is as agnostic as the web itself. We don’t take sides with regard to companies, products, and platforms. If an obscure company in Sri Lanka came out with a fully standards-compliant browser with .05% market share, we’d be happy to endorse that company’s product. All we care about is full compliance with core standards to keep the web from fragmenting, and to allow it to develop to its full potential — a potential none of us can completely imagine at this point. Standards are the way to that future.

So we applaud Netscape for taking this risk and developing Gecko via the Mozilla project, and we expect, after testing, to be able to endorse it.

Regardless of who is leading the market at any given moment, the existence of a fully standards-compliant browser will change everything. It will allow us to begin to build the web the right way.

Beyond the desktop.

Right now the web is primarily seen as a desktop computing medium. That’s where we started, and it’s where a lot of the entertainment value and sex appeal lies.

But the web’s fluid borders already go beyond the desktop, and in five to ten years the web will be everywhere. It’s already in some people’s phones. It’s already in Palm Pilots. It will be in your car, on your train, on your plane, in your hotel room. You’ll be able to turn on your oven before leaving the office. All of this will be done with web technology, and none of it will be foreign or baffling. It will be as accepted as telephones and TV.

The web will be the borderless, ubiquitous appliance that we use for information-gathering, communicating, shopping, and scheduling.

If the various devices we use to get there are being built willy-nilly, with no regard for standards, then the future looks bleak. We’ll have the same insanity at the device level that we’ve had on the web we know from our desktops.

But if the devices we use to get there are being designed around a standards-compliant core like Gecko, then the future looks good.

All of this assumes that Gecko lives up to its billing, and again, while we have no reason to doubt these claims, we still to have to wait for the final release before we’ll know for sure.

That’s the big picture.

On a more technical note, where developers are concerned, Gecko is Gecko and standards are standards. If the devices support the same standards as the desktop does, our job stops being impossible. Put another way, developers can begin to use web technology like XML throughout the process, rather than relying on complex chains of middleware to translate from device to device.

Again, all that will become easier if other browser makers follow Netscape’s lead. In a worst-case scenario, we’re back to versioning, and web development is that much harder and that much more expensive. Speaking just for myself, I’m confident that we won’t have that worst-case scenario; at least, not for long. Eventually, common sense wins.

This article is adapted from an interview between Zeldman and Computerworld’s Dominique Deckmyn, to whom much gratitude and thanks.

Navigate These:

A List Apart: Netscape Bites Bullet

CNET: Netscape Fights Back

Mozilla.org — the people building Gecko

Netscape: White Paper on Gecko

New York Times: Netscape Browser Faces a Changed World

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