Stardards, the market, and robustness

January 30th, 2003 § 1 comment

With all that talk in the Web about validation and standardization of HTML, XML and RSS, best practices and similar subjects, it’s easy to hope that things may get better for developers given enough time. However, whatever hope developers may have, it doesn’t change a fundamental reality: the market doesn’t care about standardization.

Browsing randomly through the web today, I found a relic of the lost times of the Internet: an e-mail by Marc Andreessen, one of the Netscape fathers, answering a question posed by one of the users of Mosaic, the browsers that preceded most modern navigators. The user was upset that Mosaic accept any invalid markup you threw at it without complaining. Andreessen retorted that this was what made Mosaic robust; it was a feature, not a bug. To the user’s request that Mosaic issue a warning about invalid markup, Andreessen responded that his company had no time, money or interest in implementing such feature.

Back in those days, when the standards were still being created, the market already demanded that products handle anything they got as input. In fact, Andreessen considered such kind of error handling a quality. Now, that doesn’t represent necessarily a repudiation to standards. It’s simply a philosophy that fits with the way markets operate because it gives maximum return to the user.

One of the principles of polite applications is that they must be taciturn about their personal problems. Polite applications should simply deal with errors without bothering users. That’s robustness. Applications work for, not against, users.

And unless developers control the environment they will deploy their applications — what, we all know, is unlikely — there is not other alternative but to deal with bad input. And even controlled environments tend to get out of control with time. An application may operate isolated today, but someday it may need to interface with a third-party and hell will break loose. As this always happens, it’s better not to assume much from the start.

In short, adapt or get out of the way.

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