Six Questions with Chris Wilson – #heweb11 Keynote

Chris Wilson began working on Web browsers in 1993 when he co-authored the original Windows version of NCSA Mosaic, the first mass-market WWW browser. He joined Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team as a developer in 1995, and spent the next 15 years representing  Microsoft in many standards working groups, in particular, helping to develop standards for Cascading Style Sheets, HTML, the Document Object Model and XSL through the W3C. Chris also developed the first implementation of Cascading Style Sheets in Internet Explorer – the first  in any mass-market Web browser.  

In 2010, Chris left Microsoft and joined Google’s Developer Relations team. He is currently working on the Google TV project.

1. What do you see as the most challenging and exciting problem facing Web developers today?

I think the most exciting problem facing web developers today is simply finding enough time to build awesome applications.  With the latest emerging features in the standards and the latest browsers, it’s possible to build incredibly powerful, responsive and adaptive applications, and the wealth of social and data services available is mind-boggling.  The web platform is still emerging in some areas, though, and tools support is still not ideal (and it’s hard to build tool support for such a fast-moving platform), which makes creates a few unique challenges for web developers.

2. What challenges does Google TV face in a market crowded with other net+video applications and devices?

The biggest challenge for Google TV in the consumer market is one of misunderstanding.  Google TV was really founded on three ideas: 1) making your cable/satellite TV experience better by applying search to live TV; 2) bringing web content like YouTube videos to the biggest screen in your house; and 3) providing a platform (two platforms, really, with the web and Android) for building TV applications.  The first of these ideas is somewhat unique in the market, and I think has been underestimated.  With the second, a number of other devices do quite well also – although Google TV uniquely has a full web browser, and does a good job at adapting content to the TV.  The third idea hasn’t really seen its time come, because the critical mass of TVs with the same platform support isn’t there yet, but it’s an immensely powerful idea, and Google TV’s bet on the Web platform is obviously one I have a lot of passion for.

3. Should colleges be putting more of a focus on the mobile web and less on their actual traditional web pages?

I think it’s always best to focus on content and utility first, and only then focus on an adaptive experience across a range of devices.  I’d rather have the content (or function) work, even if it’s less than an ideal experience across all devices, than be locked out of functionality on a device.

I think the real question you’re asking, though, is whether a desktop or a mobile experience is more important.  I tend to be a pragmatist – so I’d say the general guidance is “know your user”.  For a college – basic information on the college, say, that I might be researching when I’m figuring out where to send my daughters – I’m not so likely to be doing that research on my mobile phone, so I think a good experience on the desktop is important.  On the other hand, I would expect that students would want great access to their student account, their syllabus and textbooks, and their class schedule on their mobile device.  The best advice I can give is build an adaptive experience, figure out where your users need the experience sweet spots to be, and then optimize your experience for those appropriate sweet spots.

4. Sticking with mobile, what are your thoughts on developing applications for specific devices? Should the focus instead be on developing apps for a wide array of devices using HTML5 and CSS3?

Native apps (like iOS or Android applications) vs. web apps is always a hot topic.  Again, I’m pragmatic. If you need access to something in the native platform that’s not there yet in the web platform – if you’re building a 3D game, when WebGL isn’t there in most mobile browsers today – then by all means, you’ll probably want to build a native mobile application.  But ultimately, I think you’ll want to have the flexibility of the web platform, because web applications will go anywhere.  Between a Windows desktop, a Mac, an iPhone, an iPad, an Android phone or tablet, a Windows phone…  that’s five different native platforms you might have to develop for right there.  Native platforms come and go – the web is forever.

5. Does IE deserve its third rate reputation?

I think IE was a cutting-edge browser from IE4 through IE6 – in fact, because it was from Microsoft a lot of people didn’t give it the credit it deserved.  But there was a five-year gap between IE6 and IE7, and the investment just didn’t seem to be there again until some time in mid-IE9 to really catch up to the other browsers.  That made IE look like the paste-eating kid to the web developer community.  Now, there are some really smart people on the Internet Explorer team – and I’m glad they built IE9.  IE9 was a big step forward technically for Microsoft, and frankly the first time in a long time that I think they were really investing even remotely as they should in the web platform.  IE10 seems on track to continue their investment.

Another huge factor in the perception of IE is IE user upgrade complacency.  IE6 still has more desktop market share than Apple’s Safari and Opera put together.  That browser is more than a decade old!  So probably Microsoft’s biggest perception challenge is that when you combine IE’s history with their two-year-long release cycles, compounded by the slow adoption curve of their users, even if Internet Explorer does everything ahead of everyone else it doesn’t really get in the hands of most of their users (and therefore web developers) for a year or two after Firefox or Chrome.

6. Cake or pie? Both is not an acceptable answer.

That depends on the cake or pie in question. :)

In my opinion, a bad cake is worse than a bad pie.  But a great cake is better than a great pie.  I’m a hopeful pessimist, so if I have to choose cake or pie, sight unseen, then I’d choose cake, hoping for a rich, buttery, flavorful chocolate cake with loads of tasty frosting, despite the risk of getting dry, chewy cake with tasteless sugar on top.  But then there’s meat pie… mmm… meat pie…