The Killer Tag
Wednesday, December 18, 1996 by Dave Winer.
So, if I don't write a DaveNet piece for a while, the pipe gets empty, and it can be hard to get it started up again. But that problem, if it is a problem, is easily solved. Write another piece! Listen to what people say. Respond. It's easy!
Bill Gates has a vision -- Information at Your Fingertips. It's a good idea to have a slogan to explain what you're doing. That way, when you do something new, you can explain how it fits into the vision. The story evolves, people shake their heads (either way!) -- hey this stuff is cooool. Or not!
So -- we have a less large vision than Microsoft, which is appropriate because my little company is much less large than Microsoft. Our vision, Large Dynamic Sites with Lots of Authors, is incorporated in everything we do. It's the first paragraph of our business plan, and the last paragraph, and everyone inbetween. Our little company is just a Large Dynamic Site, and thanks to our community -- it has lots of authors.
I've never written about this in DaveNet, but it's becoming a hot issue in the web community, so it's time.
LTODBS stands for Low-Tech Object Distribution Server. Late last year we experimented with a high-tech server, and discovered that low-tech was better.
The LTODBS is a distribution system for new innovations built for the Frontier platform. It's a distributed website with a backbone. If you're interested in the culture of object distribution, this is a mature system that works.
People talk about the Killer App, a software product that makes a platform happen. The Apple II had one, the IBM PC, the Macintosh. Everyone is looking for one.
And now there are more opportunities to kill... Killer Parts, Killer Objects, Killer Channels!
But what about Killer Tags? No one thinks in these terms because so few of us have the opportunity to create one.
Hey -- basically there's one company that can do it -- Netscape. For all the sniping about standards, if they wanted to implement a new tag, they can do it. With its dominant share in the browser market, Netscape is in a unique position to innovate.
People assume I'm an open-standards guy. I am, but up to a point. If we have a chance to move forward quickly, and the path towards doing that involves a quick move by the leader, I say do it.
Progress matters more than process. Stay focused on moving forward.
A few issues back I started a discussion on a simple new tag for HTML that could revolutionize web authoring, making it easier to separate form from content, avoiding the use of frames, which, in my opinion, cripple the user interface of websites.
Here's the goal. The ideal web page should look good and be easy to maintain. The content can change easily, so can the look. As discussed previously, look and content are the respective provinces of designers and writers. Few designers, lots of writers. One design, with variables, lots of pages. Change the design and the look of all the pages changes.
I'm looking for the logical effect of frames, without crippling the UI. Here's how. Define a new tag <include src="url">. When the client encounters one of these, it forks off a new HTTP request, gets the response and inserts it into the text for the page. Pages assemble dynamically. The designer can change the template without coordinating with the writers. The look of a site can be transformed with a single upload.
When I floated this idea I heard that people think this should be done at the server, but I disagree. Been there, done that. The problem is that such systems are easy to set up, but hard to maintain. You can't move files to a different server without moving software. When you set up your content with such a fragile system, guess what -- it breaks!
It's been a while since we've had huge easy new power in the web. It'd be fun, I think. How about it Netscape?
Yesterday's piece, A Custom Cookie-Cutter got a fair response that the web is not a graphics environment, and that NetObjects Fusion takes it places it was never designed to go.
One designer writes "Unfortunately, Fusion fools designers into thinking that they have absolute control over the layout of a page. Just try changing the font size on a Fusion-authored page and it turns into a mess."
I think this is true. But I also think that Netscape is paying attention, and will add tags to their browser to support the layout features that Fusion users desire.
Here's how it would work. A page becomes a cartesian plane. Bits of text and graphics and code place themselves in specific locations. Some objects can already have height and width, all that's needed is top and left.
It's not rocket-science. Draw programs work this way, as do page layout programs. So does Windows and the Mac OS. People who use Quark XPress and PageMaker could do a Save-as and produce reasonable web content. This would open up the web to a new kind of designer. A few months after such a feature shipped in browsers and content tools, you'd see a flood of new beautifully-laid-out text on the web in surprising places.
People who use teletype-oriented terminal programs will object that this would make the web less usable for them. But we made the leap to graphic systems a full generation ago! Some people I work with, in their twenties now, have never used anything but graphic systems. Do we still have to be tied to the realities of the leading edge twenty years past? I guess you know how I feel about this. Onward! I say.
John Gillmore, email@example.com, a man who's no stranger on DaveNet, had an enthusiastic response to my comments about the value of the HTML standard:
"This is exactly how the whole cooperative thing we call the Internet came into being. Why does everything talk IP and TCP and Telnet? Because we wrote a spec (an RFC) and people implemented to it. And we worked out any glitches we found, in later RFCs.
"This is quite a bit different from the 'one vendor implements it and the others reverse-engineer and clone it' model of the PC industry. It allows for give-and-take and evolution. And since all the parties are cooperating to build solid specs, rather than hiding their work so that others must re-do it, it proceeds faster to a better consensus. This works because the parties realize that it is in their best interest to make all their products talk to each other.
"Microsoft has not learned this yet, despite what their marketing people tell you about how they really love the Internet. Where's the RFC on the Word document format? Where's the documentation for the new DNS records they squirt around? Why do they only release specs for their interfaces (API's) after they implement and release them?
"They're intent on selling you their product because you have no other credible choice, not because it's the best."
In The Compaq of ISPs, 7/31/96, I wrote about my frustration with the lack of quality and professionalism, and disorderly growth, in the ISP market.
I asked for an ISP who could promise transparent uptime, notification of planned outages, have a plan for growth that would assure continued good performance, and respect my professionalism at all times. I had lots of choices after writing that piece.
I chose Conxion, a San Jose ISP, for several reasons. First, I noticed that Microsoft is using them. When you download something from www.microsoft.com, you see a Conxion graphic next to the link. It looks good. And when you click on the link you get a fast download! Yeah, that's what I like.
Conxion's president, Antonio Salerno, firstname.lastname@example.org, is in my loop. We've spoken several times. He's a DaveNet reader, and a contributor. He's a smart high-energy guy, with lots of experience in the software business. And I believe he totally understood what I was asking for.
So, we ordered a full T1-connection from Conxion, the equivalent of 24 ISDN lines. A couple of weeks ago it came up. On 12/6/96 I sent an email to Antonio: "We're still having some problems with routers and hubs. It's been a bunch of work, but your guys still keep exceeding any reasonable expectations of patience, maturity, good vibes. Congrats Antonio, you have some great people. That's totally key, per the Compaq of ISPs thing."
Now all the glitches are out. My ISDN router is still turned on, but no computers are hooked into it. I'm putting up my own DNS and mail server. Thinking about getting more computers. I bought another hub. Lots of blue sky. It's exciting!
One question remains, though -- how will we handle growth? Conxion is growing, so is UserLand. As we go forward, will professionalism and good vibes remain? Are they the Compaq of ISPs? I think they're a good start. I'm going to work with them, and help them define it, from the customer side of the equation. I'm optimistic!
Back in the old days of computing, we connected via phone lines to huge banks of computers that lived behind glass, in air-conditioned environments, with raised floors to hide the wires, and engineers who wore white shirts and ties and got regular haircuts. That's the world I grew up in.
But I had a basic misunderstanding, as a longtime online user, that the computer at the other end of the pipe had to be something big. This is the basic revelation of the Internet. You can have a Compuserve-like presence, but you don't need a palace of glass to do that anymore.
But, I've found it necessary, for my psychological safety, to set up my own glass palace. For a long time I had the www.scripting.com server on the same table as my main desktop machine. Now that I'm running a T1 line and getting a lot more traffic, I need the illusion of glass.
There's a single black wire that goes over the wall, on the other side of that wire is my virtual world, the one you visit. My files travel over that wire using the same protocols, but my peace of mind comes from wearing a different hat when I'm doing server stuff.
I get out of my chair, enter another room, my own personal glass palace. A different kind of chaos reigns there. I get a spiritual haircut when I enter that room! It's coool.
Back to the chaos of content... On 11/18/96 I tried out something new, it worked spectacularly, and now a month later, it's stood the test of time, it'll be included in the next release of our website framework, and I wanted to point web developers at the idea before releasing the implementation publicly.
The idea is simple -- web pages are hiearchies. Tables nested inside tables nested inside of a list inside of a blockquote inside a table, inside the body of the page. For some reason, until I saw the demo of Microsoft's Trident environment, I hadn't understood this, or focused on it.
Hey -- when I see a hierarchy I think of outliners! So I tried doing a web page in Frontier's outliner and wrote a renderer script called "New Culture" that does a simple traversal, producing tab-indented HTML source.
You can see the resulting HTML by viewing-source on most pages on the www.scripting.com website. I'm using it everywhere. When I convert templates from flat text to outlines I find and fix bugs. I see immediate opportunities for improvement. The idea has made a big difference for me, maybe it will for others too.
A reminder, if you're looking for a great web developer job or have a great job to fill, UserLand's Classified Ads Server is here to help!
In the last 24 hours we've had new postings from two really interesting companies.
Power Computing Corp is looking for a web developer with Tango, Java and Frontier experience.
Marimba, a hugely hot startup, is looking for their webmaster. What a great opportunity for the right person!
So, if you're looking to make a move, take a look here...
I'm doing another live session at the Mactivity web conference on January 6 in San Francisco. It's free! I did one last summer in San Jose and it was a lot of fun.
It's an interactive thing. I have a microphone. I walk around and we talk and rant. There's music, but only at the beginning. Stuff gets done. The more interesting the people, the more we get done.
So if you have the inclination, come visit on the 6th! I'll demo some of the software I've been talking about. We'll talk about the web. And life. We'll listen to some Aretha! Yeah, it'll be fun.
Details: It's free. Monday, 11/6/97, 8PM-till it's over. Cathedral Hill Hotel, 1101 Van Ness at Geary, San Francisco, CA.
PS: RFC stands for Request for Comment.
PPS: ISP stands for Internet Service Provider.