It’s Not About The Rendering Engine Anymore

Today, RIM launched their new 6.0 OS (and the new BlackBerry Torch) and by doing so, added its name to the ever growing list of products using WebKit as the basis for their Web browser. RIM’s move isn’t really all that interesting: they had no good browser anyway and it’s not as if they are first to do this.

The interesting discussion in my opinion is what Microsoft should do. Back in the Netscape / IE war, Microsoft was convinced that Web browsers would ultimately replace desktops apps (they weren’t wrong) and they invested a lot of money in creating Internet Explorer. That war is still on, although nowadays the players have changed. With IE, we’re now talking about Firefox and Chrome as the main competitors.

But what really changed however, is that the HTML/CSS rendering engine shouldn’t matter that much. We went from a 1 browser = 1 engine model to a model where we now have a couple of really good open engines powering many browsers.

Controlling the world’s browser market is one thing, but as Google is proving, that doesn’t mean you need to have your own engine. Chrome is built on top of Web kit, just like Safari is and countless mobile web browsers are. These products are still competing with each others and are still different from each other yet they are built on the same foundation.

What that means of course, is easier Web development and less browser-specific bugs. This is why I think Microsoft needs to stop developing its own engine and start using either WebKit or Gecko. Both of these are well done, support many web standards and are fairly easy to integrate in a product.

Of course, such a change can’t happen overnight and it’s a difficult thing for Microsoft to do, but I do believe that in the long term, it’d make the Web a lot better. Trident, Microsoft’s rendering engine since IE 4 isn’t exactly renowned for its spectacular support for standards. And really, I’d much rather see Microsoft invest 18 months developing Internet Explorer proper rather than waste 80% of that time coding the engine.

Why We Need To Kill Flash

Anytime there’s a discussion these days about the iPhone and its competitors, Flash is usually mentioned early on in the discussion along with Multitasking. Today I want to address Flash because it’s something I strongly believe we need to kill. The topic came to me last week when the news came out that Adobe was blocking the adoption of HTML5. We still don’t have all the details there, but it did remind me of my hatred for Flash in general.

Flash is a weird product. On the one hand, it did things very well. When Macromedia (now Adobe) introduced it in 1996, they managed to make it so ubiquitous that it now has 98%+ install base. That’s quite the achievement.

On the other hand, Flash is terrible and that’s something most people agree with except perhaps for Flash designers. It’s being used today mainly for 3 things : video streaming/playback, entire or parts of web sites and banner ads.

It’s too bad Web standards are so slow to be adopted because for video streaming, there’s already a much better solution than Flash. Youtube, UStream and many others are (slowly) moving to it as more and more browsers are supporting it. Of course, as always, Internet Explorer will be the one slowing us down for this. For Web sites, the “new” technologies like the latest revisions of Javascript and DOM scripting can absolutely compete with Flash.

There are 3 major problems with Flash. Let’s review:

First, the flash player is very poorly implemented on OS X and Linux. Performance is terrible and it sucks battery life out of your laptop in record time since it pegs the CPU to 100% in seconds. That makes it inappropriate for things like cellphones in my opinion. If you visit a site with banner ads and a few flash movies, does this means you will lose 20-30% of your battery life in minutes?

As a second issue, I would point out that the flash authoring app is way too pricy. In a world where everything gets pirated, it may not seem like a big deal, but Flash, unlike Visual Studio from Microsoft and XCode from Apple has no free versions for people at home to play with. Coupled with Adobe’s usual upgrade routine every 18 months, it make Flash to be extremely expensive.

The third problem is that Flash is controlled by one company. That company decides if the Mac OS X version will be performing well. That company alone decides when a new version is released.

Add to these 3 problems the fact that many Flash websites are terribly designed and would be hard to see on a smaller screen and that these sites are usually badly (if at all) indexed in search engines and you start to understand why Apple is refusing to include it on the iPhone.

Because of all this, I’m actually happy Apple is doing this. It has forced some sites to reconsider the use of Flash and I hope it’s a trend that will continue.

Hopefully more companies will be bullish like Apple and take a stand.

Fix Outlook!

As both a software and Web developer, I have two very different opinions of Microsoft. On  the one hand, Microsoft creates fantastic developer tools like Visual Studio and their .Net platform is quite nice. As a Web developer though, you have IE, a browser used by the vast majority of the world but unfortunately also the least standard compatible browser and a major pain when it comes to coding standard compliant web sites.

For some time now, the folks at the Email Standards Project have been working to help Web developers  understand the limitations of the various email clients with regards to HTML rendering. That site is quite useful by the way, but this is not the reason of this blog post.

Today I want to talk about Fix Outlook!, an initiative by the Email Standards Project to convince Microsoft not to use the Word rendering engine to render HTML emails in Outlook for Office 2010. If you’ve ever designed an HTML email campaign for a client, you know how painful it can be to test all the different clients and by the look of it, Outlook 2010 will make it even worse.  Go on the Fix Outlook! site and have a look at the same email rendered in Outlook 2000 and Outlook 2010 to understand the extent of the damage. By using Word to render the email, Outlook basically loses most of its CSS support.

What’s sad here is that this isn’t some small piece of unknown shareware, it’s a major new version of a software that will probably be used by tens of not hundreds of millions of users around the world for several years. Just like a new version of Internet Explorer, this new version of Outlook will have a major impact on what’s possible and what’s not possible with HTML emails in the near future.

Please support the Fix Outlook campaign by tweeting. Visit the site for more information. Let’s hope Microsoft will get the message and will use a real HTML rendering engine for its email client.

If only they had such a thing in house…