John Allsopp, developer and organiser of the Web Directions conferences, responds to Aral Balkan's "one version manifesto" and argues we should embrace the web's universality and aim to make our sites available for everybody
The fine folks at .net magazine very graciously asked me to comment on Aral's piece, because of a response I recently wrote to the tweet that started the whole conversation, outlining Aral's #oneversion manifesto:
#oneversion #manifesto My websites will only support the latest versions of browsers. It's the browser makers' duty to get users to upgrade.
There's much I could say in reply to his piece. In fact I've written a number of detailed responses, but I think it's particularly important to get to the essence of why I expressed, and continue to have, reservations about this.
Sidenote: A manifesto is a declaration of principle and intent. While increasingly used somewhat ironically, in the 19th and 20th centuries manifestos were "fighting words" (Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto is perhaps the best known of some serious verbiage).
Now, Aral is widely (and rightly) respected. His knowledge and experience when it comes to designing and developing for the web (and beyond) is matched by very few. And so too is his influence over many in our profession is rightly significant. As such, I think it's important to consider the consequences such a manifesto might have on a less experienced developer. Aral qualifies his manifesto with:
"This does *not* mean to say, as some have interpreted it, 'do not use progressive enhancement'."
However, it's not hard to see why people might have interpreted it that way (my reaction was based on this interpretation).
Indeed, it's difficult to see how "only support[ing] the latest versions of browsers" doesn't mean "do not use progressive enhancement". After all, the essence of progressive enhancement is to support users of browsers other than the most up to date.
Did you see what I did there?
At the heart of my concern about Aral's manifesto is I don't think we should think of our websites and applications as supporting browsers. We should think of them as supporting users.
And however ideal it might be that our users use only the most up to date version of a browser, it simply isn't, and never will be, a practical reality.
In fact, I'm not sure the ideal is perfect. In the words of Voltaire (not one to take lightly), "The perfect is the enemy of the good". What might be lost in the perfect world where everyone has the latest browsers?
Websites aren't developed for browsers, they are developed for people. Privileged people like Aral, and me (and very likely you), with fast internet connections, high-powered devices, without disabilities, the capabilities (and permission) to update our devices. But not just people like us.
Now, suppose I need to rely on a screenreader, so in an ideal world I have the latest version of JAWS (in the real world, I'm likely to have an older one, as assistive software is often really expensive). Is this the latest version? Or is it harmful?
Or perhaps I live in Kenya and the only way I can afford to browse the web is via the latest version of Opera mini on a Nokia 1680 Classic. Is this harmful?
Or in my village in rural India, where all we have is a 10 year old XP box, running IE6. I have no idea about Firefox, or other browsers that may run on this computer, and even if I did the bandwidth required to download it far exceeds what's available (plus I've not got the rights to install software anyway). Is IE6 harmful?
Or, as I recently witnessed (and got somewhat bitten by) in a University ranked in the top 100 world wide, I've only got access to Safari 4 (for compatibility with other educational software used on the system) – and no admin access to install more recent browsers. Less than ideal? Sure. Harmful?
You get the picture.
These are the realities of the "chaotic beauty" of the web. It's not only what is published on the web that is "living, breathing, ever-changing". The context of the web's use is ever changing. The devices, the locations, the types of people who use the web is ever diversifying. But, this web has a manifesto. There are guiding principles that underlie, shape and constrain the web, and which (though this is an argument for another day) I'd argue are in fact the key to its success. In the words of the web's founder, Tim Berners-Lee
"The power of the web is in its universality"
Aral sees a problem he wants fixed. But what really is that problem?
If I'm understanding it correctly, it's that any browser that isn't completely up to date (with what exactly it's hard to say, as his ideal is a constantly evolving standard) is an impediment to the web. Well, at least "the latest and greatest" web.
But whose problem is that really? I'd argue that first and foremost it is that of designers and developers (that means people like Aral, myself and, most likely, you too).
Yes, the fragmentation of the web, in particular of the browsers people use, does present us with serious challenges. But here's where I diverge significantly from Aral. These challenges, while presenting us with difficulties to overcome, are to the benefit of the web's users. By meeting these challenges, we embrace and enable the universality of the web. By turning our back on all but the "latest and greatest" browsers, we turn our back on the web's universality. We turn our back on those using screen readers, low powered feature phones and shared older PCs in the developing world. Indeed, I'd argue we turn our back on the web.
But I don't think Aral's position and mine are really too far apart. Perhaps it's more a matter of emphasis.
I love the shiny stuff. The gradients and shadows and animations. The powerful stuff HTML5 brings. I write tools, articles and books, and I deliver workshops and run conferences on all these things.
But, what excites me about the web, what motivates me to write for it, and about it, is precisely its universality. The way it has, and promises to continue to, bring all of us together.
There's a way to go. Two billion people regularly use the web today, leaving five billion who don't.
In 14 years time there will be eight billion people on earth. Imagine if in 14 years time, there were eight billion people online! That's why my manifesto is to develop for as many users as possible.
Super cool stuff, with a global reach, what's not to love? And I'm pretty sure Aral would agree.
So, don't ignore the latest and greatest. But don't forget the other six billion.
Picture of John taken by Drew McLellan.