Web standards on the move

Internet Explorer may be moribund, but Web client technology is alive and well

I’ve consistently argued that Web standards — including XHTML, CSS, DOM, and ECMAScript — can do more than we give them credit for and have plenty of room for growth. Case in point: Apple’s Dashboard. When Steve Jobs demoed this forthcoming technology to developers last week, he called it “Exposé for widgets,” referring to a current OS X feature that tiles (and scales) all open windows for easy scanning and quick access. In OS X 10.4 (aka Tiger), Dashboard will extend the Exposé idea to a special class of small, single-purpose apps: calculators, stock viewers, media players. You hit one key to produce a tiled display of these “gadgets” and another to dismiss them.

The resemblance of Dashboard to an existing product, Konfabulator, provoked a frenzy of hand-wringing in the blogosphere. Had Apple ripped off Konfabulator? Writer/developer John Gruber blogged that gripe into submission. Gruber noted that Konfabulator’s widgets are really 20th-century Apple desk accessories in 21st-century clothing and that Dashboard’s implementation is more deeply faithful to Web standards than Konfabulator’s.

The full explanation came from Dave Hyatt, the former Mozilla developer Apple hired to lead the development of its Safari browser. Dashboard gadgets can use native OS X code, Hyatt said on his blog, but need not rely on native code to achieve snazzy effects. “Our standards support has grown so rich and our engine has become so smooth at effects,” Hyatt wrote, “that people are constantly mistaking pure JS/DHTML/CSS stuff that people are doing for something fancier.”

Dashboard also invents a couple of new HTML widgets. Are you shocked? Don’t be. There ought to be a middle ground between HTML 3.2 and full-tilt Flash or Avalon. And Hyatt’s not the only one who intends to occupy that ground. Last month, a coalition chartered to stake out the territory was formed. It’s called the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), and the members include Hyatt, Mozilla’s Brendan Eich, and Opera’s Ian Hickson. One of the group’s planned deliverables is a specification that will describe a standard way to create new HTML controls. We’ve needed that urgently for a decade. Another is a specification for an incremental upgrade to HTML forms that aims not to compete with XForms, but rather to ease the integration of XForms documents into browsers.

WHATWG’s home page asks rhetorically: “Shouldn’t this work be done at the W3C or the IETF?” And it answers: “Many of the members of this working group are active supporters and members of the W3C and other standardization bodies. We plan to submit our work for standardization to a standards body when it has reached an appropriate level of maturity.” Bingo. That’s how things used to work a decade ago when Web standards, and the applications built on them, formed a virtuous cycle of co-evolution.

Another sign of forward motion came from the Mozilla Foundation, which announced last week that it will modernize the long-stagnant Netscape plug-in API in collaboration with Adobe, Apple, Macromedia, Opera, and Sun Microsystems. In other words, everyone but Microsoft. While Internet Explorer sits on the sidelines, benched by Avalon, the rest of the players are creating some excitement on the field. Go, team!

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