This morning as I was pulling into Starbucks for my pre-work latte, listening to The Beat on Seattle's KUOW (an NPR station), the topic of web security, Internet Explorer and Firefox came up. Beyond the moderator (Steve Schoerr, I believe) there were three other panelists - a web security consultant, a writer for the Seattle Times, and an analyst from Jupiter research.
The discussion was, for the most part, non-technical; at the level of defining what a virus or worm was and why they were so problematic, the kind of discussion you'd expect in a radio forum with a wide, but not necessarily technically savvy listenership. Even given that, I think there were several points to be taken from the show beyond what was mentioned directly.
Security is Killing Microsoft. Almost from the outset, these people worked upon the assumption that Microsoft's products are fundamentally insecure, and these insecurities are likely to force you to frequently reformat your hard drives, lose critical information on your computers, or have your credit card information stolen. Long-time readers know that I'm not generally a big Microsoft proponent, but the kind of public trashing that Microsoft received may very well do more to erode their market share than any hundred bad eWeek articles about the company. The idea that Microsoft is fundamentally insecure (which I don't agree with - properly managed, Microsoft is not really any less secure than properly managed Linux distributions) has now become established folk wisdom. This is devastating for Redmond, and if anything it necessitates that they not only start putting some serious PR dollars into stopping that hemorraging of public trust but that they also seriously re-examine what their role vis-a-vis the Internet should be.
Firefox as Browser. If the radio show hurt Microsoft, it served as an hour long infomercial on the benefits of not only Firefox but Mozilla and Open Source in general, and I have no doubt that there was probably an extraordinarily high concentration of downloads coming from the Puget Sound after that. Firefox has momentum, in a way that I've not really seen any technology in the last five years have momentum, and most people who try Firefox are not going back to Internet Explorer. I argued in my previous post that while its still too early for enterprises to be developing applications around it, there is enough solidity within the platform that enterprise developers and IT managers are beginning to examine it for fast tracking into less mission critical areas.
Tech (non-)Savvy. Working at the fore-front of the Internet revolution, it is often easy to forget that most people out there know how to use the technology but have little to no clue about exactly how the technology operates. Most of the callers were of the "my computer has lately become slower than it was, is there a virus at work?" variety, though it was rather heartening to hear that many of these same people did make the switch to Firefox and found immediate improvements, though whether this is due to anything more than switching from one already full cache (and tens of thousands of ghostly temp files that will now likely never be removed from their computers) to an empty cache.
This attitude of technology as (unstated) magic is worrisome because it underlies to me how easily it is to slip into an attitude where you assume that the computer is doing valid and legitimate things at all times (or, on the other hand, that there is some evil force of terrorists out there that are determined to turn their machines into some kind of mindless zombies [aren't they already?]). I'd like to teach people to think of their computers as being an organism within a complex ecosystem, and like most such organisms attracts viruses both benign and malicious (benign viruses being programs) that provide useful benefits with no adverse side effects, a category which can become remarkably slippery if you look at it too closely. However, the fear is that this particular metaphor only reinforces the notion that computers are self-contained (and self-aware) entities. I'm increasingly convinced that in today's culture, computer training should be a staple in elementary, secondary and collegiate education.
Whither SVG? Thither!!
The blogosphere has become, for me, an awful temptation, as there are any number of articles that get posted that I so want to refute. Perhaps one of the most recent came from a writer for whom I actually have a great deal of respect ... InfoWeek commentator Jon Udell. His article entitled Whatever Happened to SVG? has set the various SVG lists buzzing, as it questioned whether SVG had dissappeared off the face of the planet, one of those articles that makes you really despair about the state of things.
His contentions, that SVG was supposed to be the technology that would change the world and then failed to do any such thing is accurate as far as it goes. In 2000, SVG was wracked with contention because there was such strong disagreement between the principals, especially Microsoft, Macromedia and Adobe, that the SVG 1.2 specification lists neither company among the working group members. Patent issues surfaced the next year which caused the W3C to debate the viability of the Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory (RAND) patent which would have let companies charge royalties for the use of standards, which came to a head in August and September of 2001 with the W3C response servers being overloaded with thousands of comments from the web community including most of the major luminaries in the field, saying almost universally that RANDs were a bad way to go. This process in turn made all W3C standard patents Royalty Free only (though this is an area where second attempts are being made to push RAND back into the organization).
Since then SVG has been subject to other challenges ... it is an incredibly complex specification to implement, and to date there have been only a few successful implementations, most notably that produced by Adobe, though the last year has seen the emergence of nearly complete SVG 1.0/1.1 viewers by companies in the wireless space, SVG static editors, and a couple of nearly complete SVG dynamic editors. A year ago at this time, few applications exported to or imported from SVG, now Microsoft (Visio), Macromedia (Flash), Adobe (illustrator) and Corel (Draw) all have SVG as either an input or output vector, and in some cases both, and most vector editors (open source and proprietary) provide SVG as an alternative format (and in some cases as the primary format).
This last point may seem trivial, but in practice it's anything but. SVG differs from nearly all other graphical drawing formats out there in several key ways - it has an XML structure that can be readily parsed and has a verfiable schema, it can reference other distributed graphic and metadata content, it is non-proprietary and as such does not run the risk of another GIF debacle, it can work on any platform that supports an SVG viewer and it can maintain external namespaces within its body. Even before you get into the scripting features of SVG, these points are enough to make it an attractive vehicle for complex documents over the web.
SVG has been "almost there" for a while, and its easy enough after a bit to begin to think that SVG will never take off. I'll be the first person to say that I don't think it will take off either ... if, by take-off, you imply explosive, rocket-like growth. Rather, it is creeping in on little cat feet (to paraphrase Carl Sandburg), showing up in places that you'd never expect to find it. Graps showing disease vectors or population shifts, icons in an operating system, drop-down boxes on a web page, a block of text in a pre-press application. SVG doesn't have a multi-million dollar marketing budget, and the Rolling Stones won't be there to play when it's used as part of an operating system. It doesn't run ads on TV, doesn't take out multi-page spreads pointing out where it is in the supply chain.
In short, I fully anticipate that SVG will end up being the VW Beetle of the graphics/multimedia world -- a little comical perhaps, not taken all that seriously, certainly not for the class conscious (at least in its 1960s incarnation), but ultimately both ubiquitous and easy enough that a grade-school student can create simple graphics with it without needing to know anything about programming beyond a few simple rules, and without needing to buy expensive editing or animation programs. Okay, SVG'll also have an air-cooled engine (you need to know exactly how far you can extend a metaphor... ;-)
It seems to me that HTML went through this stage in 1994, when the pundits who caught the wave early enough were already beginning to write articles about how HTML was beginning to be old hat, and would be dead soon enough in the face of pressure from languages such as Visual Basic (and later Java). Java on the desktop is now seen as the bad joke, Visual Basic, while still widely used, is itself now rapidly going the way of the dodo ... helped by the less than spectacular adoption of Visual Basic.NET. Meanwhile HTML is still being written by hand by those grade schoolers. Will SVG take the same arc? I'm counting on it.