The World

[as I find it]

Archive for March 2009

Software is Not Just a Tool

One of the most frustrating things I do in my daily work is wrangle with CSS. Trying to get a particular website to display correctly on multiple browsers and screen resolutions without ruining my HTML semantics can be an extremely painful process. Anyone who’s ever had to do this knows the reason: browsers implement CSS differently, and sometimes (in the case of Internet Explorer) incorrectly and without any sort of sanity. The causes behind these different implementations are various, but they include varying interpretations of the standard, disregard for the standard, and the fact that users cannot submit patches to improve CSS support in proprietary browsers.

Groaning about CSS bugs in Internet Explorer is a favorite topic on forums across the Web, but most people seem resigned to their existence and (begrudgingly) implement their own hacks and fixes, including reverting to table-based layouts. I have never seen or heard a cogent discussion of the reasons why Internet Explorer is the way that it is, or what can be done about it.

This problem is not unique to web browsers and web design. It is an inherent tension present whenever proprietary software is used to read and write data that’s supposed to adhere to an open standard. Open standards tends to evolve; proprietary software does not tend to evolve to meet them. This is partly due, I assume, to a resource allocation problem: it’s possible that even huge proprietary software companies like Microsoft can lack the resources (or willpower) to stay abreast of changes in standards over which they have little control. A bigger contributor is psychology: a culture of software ownership does not tend to foster the values of deferring to standards for the good of a group, sharing code and patches, or contributing in any other way to a community which does not recognize software property “rights.”

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

March 29, 2009 at 3:22 pm