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Make the Web, Cloud Do Your Work So You Don’t Have To


Photo by Balleyne

While perusing around the web yesterday (after sifting through my email post-vacation), I came across this Ars Technica article discussing the new Firefox upgrade timeline. It actually follows a similar upgrade timeline that WordPress adopted after WordPress 2.0 was released.

The new policy outlines a 3-4 month window for new major releases with limited security updates for releases outside of the current stable release.

The Ars article goes on to describe the angst that has come out of the corporate community as they have been lulled into a process of having to test new releases of software to ensure compatibility with their internal firewall’d webapps that have, in no small part, been created for a specific browser – usually Internet Explorer 6 or 7.

Browser Stagnation Caused IT Stagnation

A few years ago, the stagnation of browser support was broken as Firefox and Opera started a race to implement CSS3 features that were not necessarily status quo, as a result of Internet Explorer, and were not even blessed as part of an official spec. The browser makers just started doing it.

Notably, some of these browser-specific “add-ons” to CSS dealt with things that had been desired but only usable with browser hacks: rounded corners, opacity, etc.

Apple came on the scene, particularly with iOS (then iPhone OS), and put a tremendous amount of development efforts into WebKit. WebKit is a browser framework like Gecko, the framework that Firefox and the old Netscape are built on was. Apple’s take on WebKit was Safari. Google followed suit with Chrome awhile later, also built on WebKit.

What we end up with is a browser war with higher stakes than the famed Internet Explorer-Netscape war of the 1990s. We also see a lot more innovation and one-upmanship… something that can only be good for consumers.

The Ars article describes a tenuous balance for enterprise customers. That balance is the need to support internal firewalled applications while giving users access to the public web. The money quote from the article sums up the balance nicely:

The Web is a shared medium. It’s used for both private and public sites, and the ability to access these sites is dependent on Web browsers understanding a common set of protocols and file formats (many corporate intranet sites may not in fact be accessible from the Internet itself, but the browsers used to access these sites generally have to live in both worlds).

[...]

If developers could be sure that only Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 5, and Chrome 13 were in use on the Internet, they would be able to make substantial savings in development and testing, and would have a wealth of additional features available to use.

But they can’t assume that, and so they have to avoid desirable features or waste time working around their absence. And a major reason—not the only reason, but a substantial one—is corporate users. Corporate users who can’t update their browsers because of some persnickety internal application they have to use, but who then go and use that same browser on the public Internet. By unleashing these obsolete browsers on the world at large, these corporate users make the Web worse for everyone. Web developers have to target the lowest common denominator, and the corporations are making that lowest common denominator that much lower.

As someone who has worked on the web for more than 10 years and who has also worked in Enterprise, I agree.

I remember when I worked for the Navy and the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) was in deployment. It was a massive headache for everyone involved because the assumption with that contract was that systems could uniformly be tied together and standardized. By my understanding, they finally achieved that last year, but not until after being years late and hundreds of millions over budget.

I don’t know the final deployment as my contract with the Navy ended back in 2004. I know that proprietary systems were in place that were designed to a function and not to a standard.  When standards were introduced as necessary requisites for any system in that eco-system, the implications were huge.

This is the world we live in today where, as the Ars article points out, browsers that must live in a world of compatibility and still access the public web drag the rest of us down.

Outsource Your Shit and Focus on Your Core Business

But Ars already makes that point. I’m not making it again except to highlight the validity of their thoughts. My point is more intrinsic to startups, small businesses and entrepreneurs and I make it delicately as it has, in some ways, countered some of my thoughts in the past.

Why should you worry about building applications to a function when you can build them to a standard? Or better yet, why should you build from the ground up to a function when you can use external, cloud-based services built to a standard.

Take Microsoft’s just-announced Microsoft Office 365. Now, I don’t know anything about this product so don’t take my commentary as an endorsement in any way. We use Google Apps at WP Engine (another good example of exactly what I’m saying here).

In Office 365, you have a common piece of line-of-business software (Microsoft Office) available for a subscription and hosted in the cloud. This eliminates IT Administrators requirement for testing on the internal network. It’s on the web! Everyone has the web! And it doesn’t need (and in fact, cannot work) with non-standard browsers. And you don’t even need Microsoft’s browser to use it.

Suddenly, IT Administrators along with Microsoft have saved the Enterprise tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in man-hours testing and re-resting for OS compatibility. And suddenly, IT Administrators along with Microsoft have taken the chains off users to have freedom of choice in their browsers (which, by the way, is more than a pie in the sky idealistic thing… it’s also a cost-saving efficiency thing). And also suddenly, Microsoft has released the web to be able to thrive and not be retarded by corporate requirements.

This kind of thing makes perfect sense. Why re-invent the wheel? Why put resources into something you don’t have to? Why not let a third party, like Microsoft or Google, worry about the compatibility issues in line-of-business software.

After all, your company isn’t in the core business of building these applications. You are in the line of business of doing something else… building a product, a social network, a mobile app, a hosting company, etc. Your software should not define the cost of doing business. Your people and your product should.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

One thought on “Make the Web, Cloud Do Your Work So You Don’t Have To

  1. Great article! I hope it makes some kind of difference in guiding enterprise decision makers to join the modern web. I’ve recently been in two big organizations here in Israel: a massive non-profit and a bank, and both were still using IE6. I asked the people I was meeting how that could be (and why they were ruining the web for the rest of us :) ), and they said their IT department won’t upgrade for them. Terrible.

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