Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

How does the saying go, again?

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging? It wasn’t hard to be reminded of that when reading an assertion that a “competitive” Web browser engine needs funding to the tune of at least $100 million a year, presumably on development costs, and “really” $200-300 million.

Web browsers have come a long way since their inception. But they now feature absurdly complicated layout engines, all so that the elements on the screen can be re-jigged at a moment’s notice to adapt to arbitrary changes in the content, and yet they still fail to provide the kind of vanity publishing visuals that many Web designers seem to strive for, ceding that territory to things like PDFs (which, of course, generally provide static content). All along, the means of specifying layout either involves the supposedly elegant but hideously overcomplicated CSS, or to have scripts galore doing all the work, presumably all pounding the CPU as they do so.

So, we might legitimately wonder whether the “modern Web” is another example of technology for technology’s sake: an effort fuelled by Valley optimism and dubiously earned money that not only undermines interoperability and choice by driving out implementers who are not backed by obscene wealth, but also promotes wastefulness in needing ever more powerful systems to host ever more complicated browsers. Meanwhile, the user experience is constantly degraded: now you, the user, get to indicate whether hundreds of data surveillance companies should be allowed to track your activities under the laughable pretense of “legitimate interest”.

It is entirely justified to ask whether the constant technological churn is giving users any significant benefits or whether they could be using less sophisticated software to achieve the same results. In recent times, I have had to use the UK Government’s Web portal to initiate various processes, and one might be surprised to learn that it provides a clear, clean and generally coherent user experience. Naturally, it could be claimed that such nicely presented pages make good use of the facilities that CSS and the Web platform have to offer, but I think that it provides us with a glimpse into a parallel reality where “less” actually does deliver “more”, because reduced technological complication allows society to focus on matters of more pressing concern.

Having potentially hundreds or thousands of developers beavering away on raising the barrier to entry for delivering online applications is surely another example of how our societies’ priorities can be led astray by self-serving economic interests. We should be able to interact with online services using far simpler technology running on far more frugal devices than multi-core systems with multiple gigabytes of RAM. People used things like Minitel for a lot of the things people are doing today, for heaven’s sake. If you had told systems developers forty years ago that, in the future, instead of just connecting to a service and interacting with it, you would end up connecting to dozens of different services (Google, Facebook, random “adtech” platforms running on dark money) to let them record your habits, siphon off data, and sell you things you don’t want, they would probably have laughed in your face. We were supposed to be living on the Moon by now, were we not?

The modern Web apologist would, of course, insist that the modern browser offers so much more: video, for instance. I was reminded of this a few years ago when visiting the Oslo Airport Express Web site which, at that time, had a pointless video of the train rolling into the station behind the user interface controls, making my browser run rather slowly indeed. As an undergraduate, our group project was to design and implement a railway timetable querying system. On one occasion, our group meeting focusing on the user interface slid, as usual, into unfocused banter where one participant helpfully suggested that behind the primary user interface controls there would have to be “dancing ladies”. To which our only female group member objected, insisting that “dancing men” would also have to be an option. The discussion developed, acknowledging that a choice of dancers would first need to be offered, along with other considerations of the user demographic, even before asking the user anything about their rail journey.

Well, is that not where we are now? But instead of being asked personal questions, a bunch of voyeurs have been watching your every move online and have already deduced the answers to those questions and others. Then, a useless video and random developer excess drains away your computer’s interactivity as you type into treacle, trying to get a sensible result from a potentially unhelpful and otherwise underdeveloped service. How is that hole coming along, again?