I posted a rant on the fact that many modern websites break some basic browser functionality but as I did so it occurred to me that I should take the time to discuss the paradigm shift that is behind that simple fact.
Indeed, beyond the fact that the back button of my browser is rendered unreliable by some websites, lies a major shift, a kind of tug war between web users, armed with their browser, and web authors/developers, armed with the latest techniques in websites development. This shift or tug war is about how the web fundamentally works and whether the consumer or the content provider has control.
In fact, we’ve already seen several paradigm shifts in how the web works. First, there was a shift in how a web page gets displayed. Then there was a shift in how one interacts with the page. The latter is now intensified by the introduction of the latest web technology.
As I was about to post this entry I realized it was getting really long so to make it more digestible I decided to split in two parts. In this first part I discuss the first shift which is about who controls how a web page is to be displayed. In the second part I will discuss the second shift which is about who controls the interaction with the web page or how the browser behaves.
When Tim Berners-Lee created the web his idea clearly was that what was important was to enable the exchange of information. How exactly the information would end up being rendered didn’t matter that much.
For this reason the early versions of HTML were very much designed to carry structure and meaning rather than precise rendering. The HTML specification, for instance, doesn’t specify what font a heading should be rendered in. It just has a general notion of different levels of headings (H1, H2, H3, etc.) and it relies on the browser to choose appropriate fonts to represent the different levels in a reasonable way.
When the web picked up and commercial enterprises started developing websites this paradigm quickly flew out the window though. Marketing departments, typically in charge of developing websites and used to developed glossy brochures and the likes, wanted precise control of how their website would appear to the user and tolerated no variations.
This is what brought us the lovely early websites full of tables filled with one pixel wide images that failed to render properly on any screens other than those that had the exact resolution they happened to be designed for.
Thankfully, people learned, and with the introduction of stylesheets and the array of devices in use the situation has greatly improved on that front.
This was also helped by the fact that there is a limit in how much authors can force users to look at their information the way they want because some people just can’t. Accessibility issues indeed come into play, and they mean that, at least to a certain degree, the browser must provide users with a way to override the desires of the web author. This can be to render the text with enough contrast or in a font big enough for instance.
Nevertheless, it remains that the initial paradigm of “I don’t really care how exactly my page gets rendered” seems to be gone for good. For better or for worse.
Read on the second shift in Paradigm shifts and tug wars over the web part 2.