Embracing Uncertainty

February 21, 2012 in Business, Community, Tech

Embracing UncertaintyThey say the first step is admitting you have a problem. In this case, I’d say the first step is more about admitting that the entire industry has a problem.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who would respond “there’s no problems, everything’s copacetic.” And, if that’s the case, congratulations! Of course, for most, that’s not actually the case.

In the process of trying to find some good articles for this site, I’m in touch with many of my colleagues in the industry, explaining to them the mission and purpose. And, as a result, I find myself having pretty open discussions about these sensitive matters with some very well informed and experienced people — people who have been building careers and making money with digital tools for interactive production (coders, animators, designers and video engineers) for well over a decade.

In a typical exchange I had just this week, one colleague replied with a series of questions that he would wish to ask the world, in light of the shifts in the industry (and these weren’t questions on small or minor points; these are fundamental questions of tools and workflows). Then he concluded that it’s “just a matter of if I ask it in public.”

Of course, this is entirely understandable.

We all trade on our skills and expertise. Admitting that we don’t know where things are going, or what the right solutions are for right now, can feel as though we are admitting that we are no longer experts, we are not worth the money we charge, and we are not worthy of admiration or respect from our peers.

While this is all understandable, it is not accurate.

Your uncertainty does not stem from your own short-comings. It is not reflective of your skills. It does not mean that you are behind the rest of the industry. It does not mean that you missed the conference where ‘The Answers’ were distributed to your peers.

Instead, your uncertainty is the result of the actions of, and battles between, large, multi-national firms (each of whom is acting in its own profit-seeking interests), as well as the actions and decisions of international standards bodies that reflect a mix of Ivory Tower abstraction from real world commercial contexts, and the specific, narrowly-defined interests of their corporate stakeholders (who, of course, fund the activities of these organizations).

The unfortunate outcome of these battles (at least in the near-term) is a massive degree of uncertainty — more uncertainty that I have ever seen in this industry (I’ve been building websites since 1993, when the public web was just 2 years old).

As many observers already know, one of the main sources of this confusion and uncertainty is HTML5. Now, HTML version 5, as the newest generation of the HTML specification, is a massive (and, in my opinion, long-overdue) upgrade to the standard language of the web.

But HTML5 is simply not what it is commonly represented as — what some very large, powerful and well-resourced firms are spending a lot of money to convince you of. To Apple, HTML5 is ready-for-primetime — as long as you only cater to users of iOS. To Adobe, HTML5 is ready-for-primetime — despite that they do not have one releasable version of any of the HTML5 tooling that they’ve been showing off. To W3C, HTML5 is ready-for-primetime (despite that it is not a complete or final spec) — as long as you don’t need to stream a video file, or play two audio files simultaneously in that experience. To the browser makers, HTML5 is ready-for-primetime, despite that each browser treats HTML5 more as a suggestion than a specification.

Heck, even the term ‘HTML5’ itself is frequently referenced so misleadingly, as to be inaccurate. In business contexts, it’s frequently synonymous with ‘no Flash’ or ‘mobile solution’. In tech circles, HTML5 is often used to mean ‘HTML5, JavaScript, CSS and the browser video renderers’ or simply, ‘in the browser’.

So we have an incompletely defined and supported technology, misleadingly labeled in common usage as short-hand for a set of related technologies — all without a mature set of tooling or professional-grade workflows.

But, none of the firms who are now so heavily invested in the HTML5 future will tell you this. Instead, their (very well-funded, if not particularly well-crafted) message is, simply “use HTML5”.

So, as I say, the first step is to admit that the entire industry has a problem. Once you do that, you will realize that almost all of the questions that you have are shared by a large number of your colleagues. The “experts” do not have magical answers that you do not.

Asking questions — even simple ones — is the entirely natural response to situations such as these. And I would actively encourage you to become more comfortable asking questions in public forums — even (nay, especially) if you are seen as an ‘expert’. Once the community feels comfortable asking these questions in the open, we can finally begin to have an honest discussion about what is actually transpiring in the industry. Otherwise, we’ll be ceding the discussion to the same firms who created this situation, leading to an unnecessarily extended period of uncertainty.

Don’t deny the uncertainty. Embrace it.