I have read everything and its contrary about CSS vendor prefixes in the last 48 hours. Twitter, blogs, Facebook are full of messages or articles about what are or are supposed to be CSS vendor prefixes. These opinions are often given by people who were not members of the CSS Working Group when we decided to launch vendor prefixes. These opinions are too often partly or even entirely wrong so let me give you my own perspective (and history) about them. This article is with my CSS Co-chairman's hat off, I'm only an old CSS WG member in the following lines...

  • CSS Vendor Prefixes as we know them were proposed by Mike Wexler from Adobe in September 1998 to allow browser vendors to ship proprietary extensions to CSS.

    In order to allow vendors to add private properties using the CSS syntax and avoid collisions with future CSS versions, we need to define a convention for private properties. Here is my proposal (slightly different than was talked about at the meeting). Any vendors that defines a property that is not specified in this spec must put a prefix on it. That prefix must start with a '-', followed by a vendor specific abbreviation, and another '-'. All property names that DO NOT start with a '-' are RESERVED for using by the CSS working group.

  • One of the largest shippers of prefixed properties at that time was Microsoft that introduced literally dozens of such properties in Microsoft Office.
  • The CSS Working Group slowly evolved from that to « vendor prefixes indicate proprietary features OR experimental features under discussion in the CSS Working Group ». In the latter case, the vendor prefixes were supposed to be removed when the spec stabilized enough to allow it, i.e. reaching an official Call for Implementation.
  • Unfortunately, some prefixed « experimental features » were so immensely useful to CSS authors that they spread at fast pace on the Web, even if the CSS authors were instructed not to use them. CSS Gradients (a feature we originally rejected: « Gradients are an example. We don't want to have to do this in CSS. It's only a matter of time before someone wants three colors, or a radial gradient, etc. ») are the perfect example of that. At some point in the past, my own editor BlueGriffon had to output several different versions of CSS gradients to accomodate the various implementation states available in the wild (WebKit, I'm looking at you...).
  • Unfortunately, some of those prefixed properties took a lot, really a lot, of time to reach a stable state in a Standard and everyone started relying on prefixed properties in production web sites...
  • Unfortunately again, some vendors did not apply the rules they decided themselves: since the prefixed version of some properties was so widely used, they maintained them with their early implementation and syntax in parallel to a "more modern" implementation matching, or not, what was in the Working Draft at that time.
  • We ended up just a few years ago in a situation where prefixed proprerties were so widely used they started being harmful to the Web. The indredible growth of first WebKit and then Chrome triggered a massive adoption of prefixed properties by CSS authors, up to the point other vendors seriously considered implementing themselves the -webkit- prefix or at least simulating it.

Vendor prefixes were not a complete failure. They allowed the release to the masses of innovative products and the deep adoption of HTML and CSS in products that were not originally made for Web Standards (like Microsoft Office). They allowed to ship experimental features and gather priceless feedback from our users, CSS Authors. But they failed for two main reasons:

  1. The CSS Working Group - and the Group is really made only of its Members, the vendors - took faaaar too much time to standardize critical features that saw immediate massive adoption.
  2. Some vendors did not update nor "retire" experimental features when they had to do it, ditching themselves the rules they originally agreed on.

From that perspective, putting experimental features behind a flag that is by default "off" in browsers is a much better option. It's not perfect though. I'm still under the impression the standardization process becomes considerably harder when such a flag is "turned on" in a major browser before the spec becomes a Proposed Recommendation. A Standardization process is not a straight line, and even at the latest stages of standardization of a given specification, issues can arise and trigger more work and then a delay or even important technical changes. Even at PR stage, a spec can be formally objected or face an IPR issue delaying it. As CSS matures, we increasingly deal with more and more complex features and issues, and it's hard to predict when a feature will be ready for shipping. But we still need to gather feedback, we still need to "turn flags on" at some point to get real-life feedback from CSS Authors. Unfortunately, you can't easily remove things from the Web. Breaking millions of web sites to "retire" an experimental feature is still a difficult choice...

Flagged properties have another issue: they don't solve the problem of proprietary extensions to CSS that become mainstream. If a given vendor implements for its own usage a proprietary feature that is so important to them, internally, they have to "unflag" it, you can be sure some users will start using it if they can. The spread of such a feature remains a problem, because it changes the delicate balance of a World Wide Web that should be readable and usable from anywhere, with any platform, with any browser.

I think the solution is in the hands of browser vendors: they have to consider that experimental features are experimental whetever their spread in the wild. They don't have to care about the web sites they will break if they change, update or even ditch an experimental or proprietary feature. We have heard too many times the message « sorry, can't remove it, it spread too much ». It's a bad signal because it clearly tells CSS Authors experimental features are reliable because they will stay forever as they are. They also have to work faster and avoid letting an experimental feature alive for more than two years. That requires taking the following hard decisions:

  • if a feature does not stabilize in two years' time, that's probably because it's not ready or too hard to implement, or not strategic at that moment, or that the production of a Test Suite is a too large effort, or whatever. It has then to be dropped or postponed.
  • Tests are painful and time-consuming. But testing is one of the mandatory steps of our Standardization process. We should "postpone" specs that can't get a Test Suite to move along the REC track in a reasonable time. That implies removing the experimental feature from browsers, or at least turning the flag they live behind off again. It's a hard and painful decision, but it's a reasonable one given all I said above and the danger of letting an experimenal feature spread.