A Web Application Platform

The Layers

Ok, so it’s another ambitious future looking post. I’ve been thinking a lot about the architecture of a browser platform that fits what I’ve got in mind. Looking at the HTML5 mailing list largely confirms my thought process. I noticed a few weeks ago a thread in the list regarding text in the canvas element.

> I still think by introducing the drawString() method into Canvas we are
> opening the same can of worms that was open in SVG.
>
> If we go that way we will need a drawParagraph() method to draw multi
> line strings or blocks of text with wrapping and a bounding width. We
> also need to be able to stylize the text, i.e. changing the font-weight
> / color / font-style … of any word.
>
> The list goes on and on … and HTML and CSS already cover it all.
>
> The HTMLElement.drawElement() method should be no problem to implement
> since userAgents already do render HTMLElements.
>
> Having it return an ImageData object will make it insanely simple to
> manipulate in Canvas. The text elements/contents can easily be in the
> fall back content of the Canvas tag thus keeping it accessible. Getting
> the bounding box of an HTMLElement is no problem either in JavaScript.
> And applying gradients and patterns can be done using a fillRect() with
> the appropriate globalCompositeOperation.
>
> Everything (almost) is there. Let’s not re-invent a square wheel.

Let me just summarize what I think is important here. Text on the canvas highlights something very key, the browser is in many ways a specialized graphics engine. Under the hood it is capable of a lot of things, but through html we are given just a small subset. SVG and Canvas are also subsets of the capabilities built for other purposes. Really, one can think of each one of these, in addition to CSS as Domain-Specific languages (well, Canvas is really more an API) that specialize in accessing certain portions of the browsers abilities, and there is a lot of cross-over. SVG is markup based vector graphics and Canvas is command based, but they can both draw arbitrary shapes and create complex graphics. And if you look at what Webkit has been up too, you can see that they’re pushing CSS to the next level as well.  They’ve got support for CSS gradients, canvas drawing, reflections, and masks.

Cutting Through The Layers

I am reminded of the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part and thinks it is a different animal, because they do not see the whole. Each of these languages gives us a piece of the elephant, but wouldn’t it be nice to leverage the whole damn thing? I am a huge proponent of domain-specific languages, but they can’t work in a bubble. Imagine defining rails without ruby. Maybe rails can cut it for the 80%, but you need the general purpose language when you have advanced logic rails doesn’t account for.

But Keeping Them

Let me stop for a second and once more reiterate that the concerns of a web application may not be the concerns of a web page. Advancing the abilities of html and css alone would go a long way for those concerned only about documents. The document aspect of html and css are extremely important and should not be marginalized. Html and css should live on as specifications independent of the browser. That is the beauty of the open web. It is more accessible than just through an application on your pc at home. Content on the internet is accessible through any number of devices, and the specifications that we’ve built for the internet can live on without it. JavaScript as a programming language, html and css as a document format, and the whole ball of wax used for various widget platforms.

Bringing It All Together

So what do we do with this disparate collection of specifications that overlap and work with each other in various ways? For developers targeting the mainstream, it would be most advantageous to have a single, solid development platform. This is the draw of Flash and other plugins. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say we start with that. This hypothetical development platform would be designed to be completely on par with (or I dare say better than) the offerings of other plugins/RIA platforms. The open web provided the seeds of innovation that have spurned the next wave of software. It should not be relegated to the back seat when RIAs become the norm.

I come from a Java world (I know, I know). While it is not perfect, it has a history of multiple implementations on multiple platforms by multiple vendors with a high degree of compatibility. The write once, run anywhere promise used to be something of a joke, but now it holds true more than any other platforms I can think of.

I don’t want the open web to become Java. Far from it. I simply think it is a technology that took a similar problem and came up with a fairly successful solution.

So What Am I Suggesting?

What we as open web application developers need is a true Web Application Platform.  The same way that Java, Mac, Windows etc. provide a complete platform for robust applications, we need something capable of similar capabilities, but solving a slightly different problem. The Web Application Platform needs to be safe, loadable from the web without installation, and fluidly communicate with the web while taking advantage of the power of the local machine. I want to be able to dig deep and have access to painting apis, layout managers, and low level loading apis. HTML and CSS are high level abstractions that can be layered over this, and rarely should the lower level stuff be needed, but to truly be powerful, it needs to be there. Adobe Air is getting close to this type of power, but clearly it is proprietary, and is heavily dependent on flash. I just want something more.

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