Is Microsoft leading or following with SVG?

Corporate giant attention only minor part of format story

It's a great time to be a Web developer: We finally have the critical mass of technologies and practices to move Web applications materially beyond the glorified textual forms-transactors that have dominated Web sites for the last 15 years.

That's a thesis "Smart Development" is in the middle of exploring this season. One crucial component of improved Web programming is SVG, mentioned in an earlier posting (SVG a graphics format for 21st century), and back in the news lately because of corporate attention. A week ago, for example, Microsoft "submitted our request to join the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) Working Group ...", in the words of the blog of the Senior Program Manager for Internet Explorer. At the Consumer Electronics Show this week, SVG specialists Abbra announced availability of its "Vidualize" for Android -- that means the popular cellular handset platform now has a standard-based way to, for example, view over-the-air television programs.

What's the motive?

As usual, Microsoft's action drew considerable scrutiny and even skepticism. It's not hard to find commenters who write about "false marriage", "damage" and lock-out. The major market reality that has impacted SVG for years is that all major Web browsers support it--except for Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Numerous projects have decided against SVG in their designs precisely because of this lack.

Initial reaction to Microsoft's decision has been, in my paraphrase: "Finally! Soon IE will support SVG, and we can get back to our programming." I'm unconvinced -- but also unsure that it matters.

There's no guarantee that Microsoft will ever upgrade IE again, let alone that it'll include SVG. Even if it does, it'll be many years before use of earlier versions (IE 5, 6, 7, and 8, for example) falls below whatever threshold decision-makers decide should apply.

There's no need to wait, though, at least not for the majority of our development clients. Our customers already are sophisticated enough to be comfortable deciding, for example, that end-users who want full capabilities with the applications we develop need to use Opera, Safari, Firefox, Chrome, QtWeb, or one of the other browsers that support SVG well (or are willing to pay for the extra work that an IE implementation demands). From the perspective of our business, Microsoft is welcome to follow SVG's growth, but it's already too late to lead it.

The announcement is more interesting as an implicit ratification by Microsoft of SVG's stature as a standard that matters. In fact, what might prove most interesting will be Microsoft's use of SVG in products -- PowerPoint, Word, Silverlight, Excel, and so on--other than IE. To me, Microsoft's biggest impact on the SVG community is unlikely to center on IE, where it can barely do more than imitate what other browsers already do well; as SVG shows up in other applications and tools, though, the result will be to boost the population of programmers versed in its use. The global SVG ecosystem grows and deepens. Shared techniques and tools for working with SVG become more widespread and powerful. I see a bright future for SVG, not one where proprietary interests successfully "hijack" it for narrow competitive gain.

I'll follow up with posts on several particular aspects of SVG and Web-based visualization over the coming months. In the meantime, make plans to visit Paris for the next international conference on SVG.

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