View source has a posseJul 22, 2009 In Web Culture By Chris Messina
Imagine that you were charged with designing a browser from the ground up. Imagine the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight to help you develop the best browser the web has yet seen. Where would you begin?
After years of dormancy, the browser market is once again heating up with competition among several new contenders, many of which are open source. Jockeying alongside popular browsers like Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Opera are a new breed of hybrid application frameworks like Silverlight and Air that are built on browser technologies, but shed many of the traditions of the web because they require proprietary extensions, platforms, and costly tools. These hybrid models defy the basic premise of the transparency and universality that has made the web the most powerful ecosystem ever created by man.
One unsung element that has widened the reach and inspired a generation of web builders is a tiny little menu command called View Source.
View Source lets you, as a user, view the source code of every web page. Importantly,this lets people peek behind the scenes to see how web applications work; and because of this,people can copy this code into their preferred text editor (bundled with their favorite operating system), make a few tweaks, save it in HTML format, and view changes instantly, without a complicated or heavy development environment. People can change code at the level of a single paragraph tag, or splice together whole portions of web pages from different sites. This light-weight development methodology single-handedly distributes the power of the web.
Lest we devolve into an argument about property and copy rights, let us consider the benefits of the “View Source” model:
- View Source provides a cheap and easy way to view web code. It lets users inspect applications in ways that desktop applications typically do not. But it’s especially important that View Source is directly available in the browser interface, one-click away. After that, all you need is a text editor.
- As a result, everyone can learn from everyone else without having to ask for explicit permission. This gives the web a great deal of forward momentum by baking in a competitive model that favors initiative, iterative improvement, elegance, and solid design thinking (since you’re always looking to do something a bit cooler — more easily — than your competitors).
- Transparent data formats help to maintain the longevity of information. Having direct access to source code reduces your reliance on secondary technologies to parse or read it. Put another way, HTML documents that were created in 1999 are just as readable in 2009.
The point is that View Source is more than a vestigial organ of the internet; it provides more than just access to the guts of a webpage.
So how do Silverlight and Air handle the View Source feature? Well, they don’t, at least by default. As hybrid application frameworks, they bury or obfuscate the source viewing options, in exchange for simplicity and control.
Remember, the value of View Source is that it is directly available in the browser interface, one-click away; these hybrid models violate this pattern. As a result, they inhibit peer-to-peer learning. They encumber technologies that are otherwise free to use and implement (e.g., if IE is the required development platform, they are not completely FREE); and by obscuring the inner workings of web applications, they sacrifice the transparency and universality that has contributed to the web’s success.
Even Google’s Chrome browser has relegated the View Source command to a developer sub-menu. Taking into consideration the omission of this functionality in Silverlight and Air, might this be suggestive of an overall industry trend?
Why should anybody care? Well, because View Source should not be turned into an expert feature! View Source demands a place in a web application’s interface, equally accessible to developers and hobbyists of all levels of expertise, because it is a feature for everybody — not just for experts. Even if it’s technically advanced, it’s an essential part of the interface as the first entry point for so many people in understanding the way the web works.