Re: Netscape v NCSA, Progress?

Robert Robbins (
Thu, 27 Oct 1994 10:09:51 +0100

On Tue, 25 Oct 1994, Tony Sanders wrote:

> The real point of the HTML standard is to make sure that different browsers
> are able to read HTML files and display them and to the best of my knowledge
> *NONE* of the Mozilla extensions violate the HTML spec, specifically:

.. stuff deleted...

> Mozilla also does not seem to violate the spirit of this intention in that
> existing browsers are perfectly able to display documents that use the
> Mozilla extensions (and if they can't they are badly broken).

> So I don't really see what all the fuss is about. If the HTML standard
> doesn't want to follow Mozilla and defines some other solution then fine.
> If it doesn't provide an alternative then fine. What's the big deal?

The potential (emphasis on potential) big deal is as follows.

If everybody adheres to an accepted standard, then every client can view
all of the information provided by every server. This is good.

If one supplier adds some nice superset extensions to the standard and
offers both client and server systems to support the extensions, then
users fall into two categories: those who use just the old standard and
are no worse off than before, and those who use the extended system and
who gain functionality. Although those using old clients may not be able
to see all of the information provided by new servers, they can regain
total access just by upgrading to the new extended system. This is also
good. It is also logically indistinguishable from revisions to an
existing single standard. Either you upgrade or you don't. Your choice.

Now, if several suppliers add different nice superset extensions to the
standard, and many different server sites adopt different ones of these,
then NOBODY can see all of the information provided by all of the servers.
This is bad. But, the situation could be remedied if (a) all of the
different extensions are union compatible, and (b) somebody combines all
of the extensions into a generic client. This is unlikely. And, this is
logically indistinguishable from creating a standard through consensus --
something that almost never happens in a rapidly changing market.

It has been argued in non-WWW contexts that the value to users of a
networked collection of resources rises as the square (or some non-linear
function) of the number of resources. This attracts so many users, that
resources are willing to participate in the collective, rather than go it
alone, because the additional number of users attracted to the whole
system through its great total value more than offsets the numbers lost to
"competitors" (who can also be located through the information
collective). Economists argue that this is why different airlines are
willing to list their flight information on a shared reservation system,
rather than insisting on going their own way, and on why railroads adopt
the same size track, etc.

The relevance of this to the WWW community is that much of the growth in
the WWW has probably been due to the non-linear growth in value as the
number of servers expanded. If we see too many different, conflicting
"improvements," then the single world-wide WEB will begin to split into
many little, less than world-wide mini-webs. There'll be the aol-web and
the mozilla-web and the sammy's-good-web...

Stonebraker (Future trends in database systems, 1989. IEEE Transactions on
Knowledge and Data Engineering, 1:33-44) discusses some very similar
issues with regard to the (then) high acceptance of SQL as a data query
standard. The abstract begins,

This paper discusses the likely evolution of commercial data managers
over the next several years. Topics to be covered include the

Why SQL has become an intergalactic standard.
Who will benefit from from SQL standardization.
Why the current SQL standard has no chance of lasting...

In the paper is a nice presentation of standards, the different ways they
come about, and the different ways they come undone. In the section
entitled "Why Standard SQL Is Doomed" Stonebraker notes that (a) SQL as it
presently exists does not meet all needs adequately, (b) improvements
to meet many of the needs can be accomplished as nice superset extensions
to standard SQL, (c) the demand for these changes is such that aggressive
vendors will begin incorporating these extensions as they see fit, with an
eye toward meeting perceived demand more than adhering to standards.

The end result, he predicts, will be: "The extensions will solve problems
that are so important to large classes of users that they will gladly use
the extended capabilities. In this way, any application that a user
writes for vendor A's system will not run without substantial maintenance
on vendor B's system and vice versa. This will ensure that application
portability will not occur through SQL."

This prediction may be easily rewritten for the WWW situation: "The
extensions will solve problems that are so important to large classes of
users that they will gladly use the extended capabilities. In this way,
any HomePage that a user writes using vendor A's extensions will not be
viewable without substantial maintenance on vendor B's client and vice
versa. This will ensure the breakdown of the great world-wide web into
a myriad of non-interoperable electronic publishing systems."

Maybe this is a merely an inappropriate projection of SQL's problems onto
WWW. Then again, maybe not. At least to me it seems that there is a
potentially big deal lurking in the possibility of multiple diverging