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Archive: 24 October 2003

Corralled

I was going to talk about the CSS class I start teaching tonight at Cuyahoga Community College.  That’s been trumped.

Microsoft blogger Ryan Dawson spent a little time talking about XAML last night.  What’s XAML?

The quick and dirty: XAML is a way to create applications in the browser (or out for that matter).  For example, imagine a text editor with the rich UI of Windows, but portable in the browser.  XAML doesn’t even have to be an application; it could be your existing website in a more structured manner.

The quick and dirty (2): It is basically an XML structure with CSS and JavaScript.  The CSS defines the appearance and the JavaScript dictates behavior.

Go read it.  I have some thoughts, many of which have been stewing for a while, so come back if you’re interested.

(…pause to idly wonder if XAML is pronounced “zammel” or “camel”…)

Okay.  This all looks fantastic, although it’s less groundbreaking when you realize Mozilla already did it with XUL (“zool,” in case you were wondering, just like in Ghostbusters).  Think of it: a rich development and Web services environment built entirely out of open technologies like XML, CSS, JavaScript, and so on.  It’s like a dream come true.

Then again, maybe it’s a nightmare.  I said in “Checks and Balances“:

…the whole Eolas situation probably doesn’t have the Microsoft folks in a benevolent frame of mind regarding standards.  If they just abandoned the public Web and moved everything into a closed, proprietary sandbox of some kind, they might be able to avoid these sorts of problems altogether.  That’s exactly what I expect them to do in Longhorn, and the expectation worries me.  If the whole world moves into the sandbox—and let’s face it, in an e-commerce sense, IE/Win is the whole world—what reason would there be to pay any more attention to the Web?

We might say hey, fine, let’s get Microsoft and its partners the hell off the Web so we can go back to developing it the right way; let’s take back the neighborhood.  That would make about as much sense as rooting for Flash to be the technology used on every Web site in existence.  When one company owns the medium, everyone else loses.

These thoughts were largely fueled by rumors I’d been hearing over the last few months; those rumors were obviously about XAML.  I also wondered if Dave Winer had been hearing similar rumors when he made his famous “locked in the trunk and going over the cliff” comment about the Web.

Remember, this is a very large corporation we’re talking about here, never mind that it’s Microsoft.  They will develop technology in a way that increases profits.  Their goal is pretty obviously is to build rich capabilities directly into Longhorn, so that Windows users get all kinds of cool stuff for “free.”  Picture it: when you open the “Search” application and type “flights from Cleveland to New York,” it returns airfares for you right there in the search results box.  But from where are those airfares going to come?  Orbitz?  Not bleeding likely.  How about Expedia?  Yeah.  Just maybe.

Now, think about searching for a band like Our Lady Peace.  You get links to fan sites as well as links to buy their albums.  Who’s going to supply those e-commerce links?  If I were a betting man, I’d say a Microsoft partner.  In hotly contested e-commerce sectors, the bidding wars over those partnerships will be outrageous.  Microsoft gets the best of both worlds: a transaction fee for purchases their OS users make in the Longhorn Corral, and whatever money Amazon or Buy.com or whoever pays them just to have the chance to pay them transaction fees on those sales.

Now consider the issue of who will supply news links, which can lead to major ad revenue when users follow the link to a story.  MSN is the obvious venue, of course, and whoever’s partnering with them gets their ads on the Longhorn desktop.  So when it comes to sports scores and headlines, for example, ESPN is pretty set up—as long as they can stay a partner.  How much will that privilege cost them in five years?

And where will AOL be then, now that Netscape is effectively dead and Mozilla‘s been spun off?  As Dave Shea wrote from 2009, “AOL executives surprised to discover ‘foresight’ carelessly crossed out of their dictionaries.”  More recently, Simon Willison said:

On the negative side, this looks set to represent the ultimate browser lock-in – in a few years time when IE 7 comes as standard on new PC s I wouldn’t be surprised to see the corporate software development world moving almost exclusively to this technology – after all, it’s going to be extremely easy both to develop and to distribute and it will have all of the benefits of a web application without the downside of the restricted GUIs offered by HTML.

Exactly so.  Microsoft, having learned what it needed to know from playing in the public Web space, is now positioning itself to pick up all the e-commerce and go home.

Permit me to repeat myself: “When one company owns the medium, everyone else loses.”  Everyone from design firms to tool vendors to browser makers will have to dance to Microsoft’s tune.  We have until about 2007, maybe 2008, to prevent that from happening.  Can it be done?  How?  By whom?  If XAML lives up to its potential, Microsoft won’t need the W3C any more.  Why should they play by the open community’s rules when they can create their own very lucrative and highly controlled gated community?

I want to be wrong.  I want to think that XAML will be open, interoperable, available for anyone to hook into whether or not they’re a partner or Longhorn developer.  I want to believe that Safari and Mozilla will be able to surf the XAML sea just as effectively as Explorer.  I also remember my history, and the past behavior I recall doesn’t bode well for the future.

I’ll admit that a lot of my concern is self-interested.  If XAML locks up the Web, then I’ve got a lot of scrambling to do.  I can very likely stay employed, since CSS is apparently a big part of XAML, and probably do pretty well for myself.  I’m not sure if my heart would be in it, though.  One of the things I love about the Web is its big, sprawling, open nature.  I’ve fought against fragmentation for years; I’ve been fighting the open standards fight for longer than I care to remember—for longer than a lot of you have been working with the Web, in fact.  That all stands in jeopardy now.  I may, at long last, be caught in the crushing, extending embrace.

If that’s so, I suppose I’ll have plenty of company.

October 2003
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