What it means for IT
What does it mean for IT folks if indeed "the browser is the new standard"? Must we hang on to each word the WHATWG and W3C hand down as "the future of the Web"? More importantly, do we need to submit our users (and ourselves) to an exhausting rolling schedule of browser upgrades just to stay on top of things?
The short answer to both those questions, thankfully, is "no," for three principal reasons.
First, implementations trump standards.
At least for IT people, anyway -- they're concerned more with what they actually deploy, since that's what their people most directly use in the first place. "Classic IT shops are consumers of technology; how the standards evolved is moot to them," says independent consultant Jay Hemmady, former regional CIO of Market Transport and former CTO of Bidwell (now Ameritrade).
To wit: Few people care that Xerox invented the GUI as we currently know it; they only care about how it's implemented on their desktop. Likewise, for most shops, the goal isn't to use the HTML5 video tag; it's to find the best way to render video using a given browser. In other words, standards mean nothing without a workable implementation.
That, in turn, means IT should keep its eye on what features are showing up in which browsers, and let the standards continue to evolve as they will.
Second, product versions are easier to target than standards.
It's easier to make something for a specific browser -- or a specific iteration of that browser -- than it is to write to an abstract standard. ("Chrome version 15 and up" is a narrower target than "HTML5.") Also, browsers tend to widen their feature support over time rather than narrow it, which also makes targeting easier.
Forrester's Hammond agrees that IT managers should focus on specific platforms and browsers, and not generic concepts about standards, while acknowledging that this strategy requires some work. "Use a site like HTML5 Test to figure out what works on those browsers and what doesn't," he recommends.
"Take a progressive enhancement strategy that starts with basic textual content and adds capabilities and UI as you detect browsers that support advanced features," he continues. Finally, "use a library like Modernizr to detect what features a browser supports, and use a template like Boilerplate to get started."
Third, products are easier to work around than standards.
In the short run, it's far easier to switch or upgrade browsers than it is to influence the development of a particular standard. You could even try lobbying the browser maker to add a given feature (though the latter typically only works if your voice is among many clamoring for the same feature, and even then it's no guarantee of success).
"It's the product manufacturers that elect to use or not use standards. IT shops [just] acquire the products," says Hemmady. "The product makers might be worried about the standards bodies, and the IT departments not so much. Compatibility, integration and co-existence are more important to IT departments than adherence to standards."
How to cope
We're agreed, then, that it's IT's job to let the standards-setting bodies do their work and concentrate on targeting specific browsers to deliver desired HTML5 features. But what's the best way to accomplish that goal without making yourself, your department or your users crazy?