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Death to vendor prefixes!

In the last few years, there has been an explosion of development in the HTML and CSS specs, much of it driven by browser innovation. As early as 2007, Apple began pushing out vendor-specific prefixes to support CSS properties not yet in the open specification. Other browser developers have followed suit, so that there are now each of -o (Opera), -ms (IE9+), -moz (Mozilla/Gecko rendering engine), and -webkit (Safari and Chrome).

Early on, a number of commentators suggested that this was a bad idea, that it would lead back down a nightmarish path that web design has been down once before. In the late 1990s, websites were designed specifically for Netscape or Internet Explorer. Then, after IE took over and had 95% market share, it had an implementation that did not honor the ultimate form of the CSS2 and CSS2.1 specs. The result was another “solution” that proved to be less than helpful: Quirks Mode.

In both cases, many users chose to design the website to work as effectively as possible for one specific audience, or relying on quirks to achieve specific ends. In the case of Quirks Mode specifically, a feature that was designed to allow graceful degradation ended up being used in exactly the opposite fashion. The result was that all other browsers then had to make a choice between the actual standard (in which case these sites are left in a ghetto) and the de facto standard created by widespread usage of these particular implementations.

Thankfully, aggressive evangelism for conformity with the specs over the last few years has finally started to put a dent in these practices. And then -webkit happened.

When these vendor-specific prefixes were proposed, the intent was to allow browsers to implement proposed elements of the new CSS3 specification, or experimental features that might someday become a part of a spec if they were successful. Historically minded thinkers suggested – rightly, as it turns out, though I disagreed at the time – that the result would be people relying on these for basic behavior of their sites. The responsible designers all protested that the implementations were explicitly created in a way that would encourage using them only for progressive enhancement or graceful degradation. (The age of that second link should make it clear: this is not a new battle.)

The skeptics just pointed back at Quirks Mode. The good designers carried the day. Fast forward a few years, and we’re now in an era where people are designing iPhone-specific websites relying heavily on -webkit prefixes. Suddenly, we’re back in the world of the late 90s, wondering what happened to the hard-fought victory of standards and universal accessibility. The skeptics were right. People are lazy, and if something works in WebKit, well, they’ll use it. Even if that breaks the open web.

Those same lazy designers and developers are already applying the same (lack of) principles to responsive design, even further breaking the web. And this with an approach that was proposed as the very definition of progressive enhancement!

The long and short of it is: people are lazy, people are lazy, people are lazy. Especially in the web design world. There are hundreds of thousands of designers and developers out there, and many – perhaps even a majority – of them don’t care about standards. They care about what works, and what works fastest.

There is hope, though, because the browser vendors recognize the problem, as do some of the influential voices that have helped fight this battle before. A few articles that are worth your time:

  • Reading List: mobile development approaches – Bruce Lawson, who highlights the developing schism in this area and has a couple of helpful links. The two comments before mine on the article are also on target.
  • Did we lose track of the big picture? – Thierry Koblentz. This is one of those links, and though I’d quibble with how he uses “responsive design,” he’s right that people are misusing and abusing the concept in precisely the way he outlines.
  • CSS Working Group Minutes – scroll down to or search for “Vendor Prefixes.” This is a long read, but well worth your time. The long and short of it? Prefixes are going to be deprecated hard after their necessity is ended, to keep users from relying on them. And that’s a very, very good thing.

Hopefully, this time we’ll learn the lesson. Any tool that can be abused will be abused. The best developers and designers will follow best practices; that’s part of what makes them the best. The challenge is everyone else. The only way to keep the crowd from breaking the open web is to make best practices easy and everything else painful and hard, because most people will always take cheap and easy over right.

A big hat tip on all of this to Mat “Wilto” Marquis (@wilto), whose retweet got me rolling.