A word of praise for messy innovation

Innovation can be messy. In fact, I'd go so far as to say innovation should be messy, if you want real progress.

In a piece of shallow pageview-trolling that's typical of tech "journalism," PC magazine is likening Google Chrome to Internet Explorer 6 (Satan's Web browser) because it's doing things other browsers can not, as yet, do.

Standards committees are great for cleaning up messes. They're not so good for innovation. HTML5, which is a great leap forward, is the result of a lot of very messy innovation including, along the way, many mistakes and blind alleys.

Codifying HTML5 has been described as "pave the cowpaths" -- as opposed to architecturally planning the sidewalks. Practical extensions developed in real-world conditions by real-world programmers are examined, critiqued, modified, and ultimately accepted or rejected.

That process -- messy innovation at Google and Apple and the Mozilla team and, yes, Microsoft -- has given us a great leap forward in Web functionality.

There's a story that the Harvard/Christensen/Innosight guys like to tell. A pottery class was split in two. One group was given access to books and resources about pottery theory and instructed to think through the process and make one great pot. The other was given a big pile of mud and instructed to make as many pots as they wanted. Guess which one wound up with the best product?

Because Google has such great server-side products (search, Docs, Picasa, etc.), it's in an unusually good position to figure out what makes sense on the browser side, and in between the browser and server. One outcome is SPDY, a replacement for HTTP, the data layer that binds together the World Wide Web.

Until recently, Google Chrome (including Chromium, its unbranded, open version) was the only Web browser with SPDY support. Amazon uses SPDY for its Kindle Fire tablet browser.

You could rail against Google for optimizing its Google+, Docs and search services for Chrome by using a proprietary solution. Or you could celebrate the invention of a faster way to browse the Web. Since Google has been open and public about the development of SPDY for more than two years now, I don't see much foundation for complaint.

Along the way, people implementing new ideas are bound to make mistakes. I've been around long enough to have seen a lot of them on the Web.

Netscape solved the layout problem the wrong way -- with tables and font tags and (shudder) the <blink> tag. And the Netscape <frameset> tag family begat some of the most horrid site designs ever. But in 1996 it led Microsoft to create the <iframe> tag, which is tremendously useful in real-world Web development and survives today in HTML5.

I want to see standards, but I want them to be smart standards and not pedantic piles of problems. The way we get there is a process of real-world trial and error. So long as that process is worked out in the open, as Google is doing, and not in secret (as Microsoft did in some of its ill-intended extensions over the years), then I think it's worth celebrating. Mud spatters and all.