A recent protest from HTML standards editor Ian Hickson that DRM web video proposal from Google, Microsoft, and Netflix to the W3C raises broader questions about the success of standards--and possibly signals the re-igniting of the browser wars.
Hickson's remarks are very well covered by Steven Shankland over at CNET, an article that you should most definitely read if you have any interest in standards whatsoever. (And even if you don't.)
The thrust of the article was to point out Hickson's concerns over the fallacy of introducing Encrypted Media Extensions technologies to the W3C. These extensions, if approved, would introduce DRM (digital rights management) capabilities to HTML5-provided video, something these three companies, at least, believe that is necessary.
Currently, DRM is handled by plug-ins, but the whole point of HTML5 is to move away from plug-ins, and the introduction of such extensions, Hickson argues, would be be tantamount to keeping plug-ins around.
"'The DRM proposal is just a plug-in platform in disguise. You still have proprietary plug-ins, it's just that the DRM proposal calls them 'CDMs,' or content decryption modules,' he said. 'It defeats the entire point of HTML <video>.'"
Reading this piece, I begin to wonder (again) where Mozilla's Firefox was going to fit in all of this. The addition of such extensions to Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Google's Chrome browser would essentially re-introduce the kind of silliness that was going on back when I was the editor of Browserwatch, and competing browser extensions on IE and Netscape Navigator were all the rage.
I worry a bit about Firefox, I know. But when I see things like this, coupled with announcements like Adobe's decision to only support Flash for Linux on the ChromeOS platform (thus neatly locking out Flash on Firefox), I can't help but be concerned about the long-term future of Firefox.
That's why, for example, I was pretty stoked about the new Boot to Gecko project, Mozilla's new effort to revive the old Netscape idea of browser as platform.
Because Mozilla finally seems to be pivoting away from its' sole Firefox-revenue business plan, I am not as doom-and-gloom as pundits like Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, who predicts that the changes by Adobe could spell bad news for Firefox. I will agree with Kingsley-Hughes only up to a point: the lack of Flash on Firefox for Linux may be a pain in the tuchus, but hardly more than that, because of the reasons outlined above and because, well, who really gives a darn about Flash anymore?
These kerfuffles over DRM extensions in HTML5 and Adobe's abandonment of Linux are but two examples of what seems to be a slow and subtle repositioning in the browser sector over the coming of HTML5. The introduction of the new standard is forcing browser companies to take a good hard look at what they can do to differentiate themselves from the competition.
This is a source of frustration to me, because every time it seems like we've all gotten out collective acts together to work with a single standard, something comes along to screw it up. In this case, the idea that feature differentiation is so important for competition, it's necessary to make unnecessary alterations or additions to the standard… which pretty much defeats the point of the standard.
The frustration is not just that this is happening, but also that I, for one, can't seem to puzzle out a better way. I understand competition, of course, but is software development forever destined to never compete on a level playing field?
Some might argue that it has to be this way, because if one developer or company doesn't come along and radically change the rules once in a while, we don't get innovative leaps.
Still, it feels like this does a great disservice to those whom software is supposed to benefit the most: the end user, who is forever forced to make choices about what to use based on format lock-ins and other ways to keep them hooked in.
This is something that standards were supposed to help alleviate, but it seems the lesson has been lost again.
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