make-believe.org

Proprietary platforms still suck.

There's a lot I would like to say about Microsoft Silverlight, and I've had several weeks of having a lot to say in intra-office fulminating against Adobe Apollo, but it has already been said, and more efficiently. Still, I want to add my voice to the choir.

Proprietary software never really went away. But for something like the last two or three years, I haven't felt obliged to use it — and that has made computing, which I do most of the day, most of the year, a much less anxious activity. I don't mind proprietary software, I just try to avoid it.

Proprietary software development platforms are another matter entirely, and proprietary web runtimes are the worst of them. The desktop has largely been forsaken to proprietary platforms since their inception (due to the monolithic nature of operating system production), but the web has resisted them with remarkable durability. Flash might have gathered a large install base, but for making serious stuff, it hasn't really crossed over into mainstream respectability.

Until now, it seems. Following the mostly successful Web Standards backlash against the the legacy of the Browser Wars, we're starting to lean back on our laurels and wonder, just wonder, if proprietary ain't so bad. People as obviously clever as Dan Webb are putting down the healthy pint of beer (as in 'free as in beer'*), and drinking the Kool-Aid.

It's understandable — the web is built of constraints, and constraints by definition make it harder to express your creativity. But this is important: we have to call bullshit on the latest 'solutions'. These little magic boxes being hawked by the big end of town might seem attractive to you, the web professional, because they promise a cornucopia of super-slick animated transitions, or drag and drop, or offline sync, or whatever is currently not floating the boat you're developing.

But they are built to lock in some users (you being their primary target), and worse, to lock out others — like those brave pioneers out on the free software frontiers of Linux, BSD & etc. And what of accessibility? And what, without wanting to get too melodramatic, of the developing world? Big corporations who build stuff to make a buck have a habit of ignoring those without any. That's their choice, but is it yours? Will the hundred dollar laptop run Apollo and Silverlight?

'But Mister Pearson, are you saying I can't use Rich Internet Application frameworks because of the starving kids in Africa?' Well, that would be silly, and if you're asking that you've misinterpreted my argument. The Web, in its disarming technological simplicity, is a mostly level-playing field for participants — barriers to entry are assessed and adjusted down where possible. Platforms built on principles of exclusivity and opacity, principles of 'this is the majority slice of the market!' and 'we have to protect our IP!', invariably turn out to be bad for everyone. Why aren't you developing or using ActiveX anymore?

If there are tools missing from our toolbox, we should start preparing standards and joining open-source teams to build them. We should follow something closer to the Rails model of technology advances (open-source, but extracted from large-scale deployed applications, with heavy emphasis on pragmatism) rather than trying to be all things to all people. The mantra is not 'what we have now is good enough', though there are still many possibilities arising from enlightened JavaScript development that are unexplored, but that 'if we need it, we will build and distribute it freely.'

And for the record, "Cross-platform: Windows and Mac" is the web equivalent of "Oh, we got both kinds of music. We got country and western."

* Excuse my somewhat ham-fisted attempt at EFF-nerd humour.

Joseph | 3 May 2007

Thu 3 May 2007, 3:14PM JayPullur

Urge you to support Dekoh the open-source RIA platform on the desktop.

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