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Saturday, December 9, 2000   Coverage
December 7, 2000
December 8, 2000
December 9, 2000
 
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Jeffrey Zeldman wishes that he didn't have to talk about Web standards.
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Zeldman showed that the Web Standards Project's Web page is indeed standards compliant.
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Dori Smith bemoaned the dismissive attitude that tool vendors tend to have toward standards.
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Glenn Davis is so tired of fighting with Microsoft and Netscape/AOL that he had to do his presentation sitting down.
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Tim Bray demonstrated that the state of standards sucks.
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The people who brought you a standards-compliant Web.

Standard Fare

by Tor D. Berg

Saturday was heavy with discussion of Web standards, featuring a morning keynote by Web Standards Project (WaSP) group Leader Jeffrey Zeldman and an afternoon panel discussion with about half of the Wasp steering committee. Zeldman and his associates offered history lessons, outrage, guidance, and a small kernel of hope as the conspirators placed the subject of standards well within the context of quality user experience that has become the dominant theme at this conference.

Zeldman, well known for his dry wit, opened his well-attended keynote, "Artistry, Accessibility, and Standards: The Good News" by stating that "Wasp must die. It must wither like a communist state." In 1998, WaSP's founding members had felt that it would be perhaps a six-month project. In Zeldman's view, the fact that he was still being forced to fight for Web standards was "absurd."

This resentful attitude was later echoed by the rest of the Wasp steering committee in the "Meeting the Standards" panel. Zeldman was joined by Wasp founder Glenn Davis, co-author of the XML 1.0 standard Tim Bray, and JavaScript expert Dori Smith. (Absent were steering committee members Steve Champeon, B.K. DeLong, Sally Khudairi, and Todd Fahrner.) Steering committee members were uniformly aghast at browser and tool manufacturers' pointless and arrogant resistance to what Wasp viewed as a very simple and common sense request. Zeldman called the list of five standards "retardedly simple." Wasp is asking that all browsers support HTML 4.0, Cascading Style Sheets 1, the Document Object Model (or DOM), ECMAScript 1 (formerly known as JavaScript), and XML.

According to Zeldman, the problems that proponents of Web standards face today arose from an early dual view of the Web. The Web's inventors were mostly physics professors who viewed it primarily as an immense database for sharing information. Other early adopters saw it as a great business channel, but in order to use it for that purpose, it needed to look good. And because HTML was invented by physics professors, it made documents look like physics papers. So designers started hacking HTML in an ad hoc fashion. In 1994 and 1995, this wasn't so much a problem because Netscape had the only really viable commercial-level browser.

But when Microsoft entered the market with early versions of Internet Explorer, a classic pattern of competition emerged, with each company offering features that the other didn't support in hopes of gaining exclusivity. So designers were suddenly faced with having to design different versions of the same page for different browsers. This pattern of conflict and the proliferation of competing features continued until very recently.

Glenn Davis later took up the story where Wasp entered. In 1998, after hearing that Netscape did not intend to support standards in its next-generation browser, Davis wrote an angry rant to a Web development mail list. The message was propagated over list servers and a week later Davis found himself pressed into founding Wasp

Over the next two years, Davis angrily noted, he and the rest of Wasp found themselves embroiled not in a short-term discussion about technology, but in a long, drawn out political dispute. Bouncing back and forth between Netscape/AOL and Microsoft, Davis has experienced everything from manipulative delaying tactics to outright refusals to cooperate. Davis saw Wasp's first success in a petition circulated online and submitted to Netscape demanding that the company introduce a new rendering engine that had been sitting in the wings.

Now, almost two years after the success of that petition, Netscape 6 has been released and is, for the most part, standards-compliant. Zeldman's caveat that the browser has some bugs was called a minor point in view of the success of a standards-compliant browser. Zeldman and Davis both called Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac and Opera 4 successful standards-compliant browsers (Wasp has endorsed both), but noted that the two constitute only 8% of the browser market.

Tim Bray, after prefacing his comments by saying, "The state of standards sucks," went on to illustrate the positive effects of Web standardization. Bray described how his own project, Antarcti.ca, grabs data based on the unicode standard from the Open Directory Project (http://www.dmoz.org), funnels it through a relational database and several proprietary runtime engines, and gets good-looking hyper-organized text, even in nonroman character sets, out the other end. "And it all just works," Bray said breathlessly, "because it's all based on standards."

Next, Dori Smith stood up to read a quote from Adobe's PR department explaining why GoLive cannot create HTML 4.0 compliant Web pages. Adobe's position was that the importance of standards had been greatly exaggerated by a small and vocal minority. The company argument was that because most Web designers create their pages with WYSIWYG tools, and WYSIWYG tools don't support standards, then standards are irrelevant. Smith paused to let the audience ponder this circular logic before saying, simply, "It is very difficult to create standards-compliant Web pages with WYSIWYG tools."

This point represents a part of the transition that Wasp is going through. With standards-compliant browsers on the market or very close to it, Wasp is beginning to target tool vendors and their lack of commitment to Web standards.

The other part of the transition to standards compliance is easing the user into this new world of universal compatibility. Zeldman said that it is important to allow for an 18-month period during which users will gradually upgrade legacy browsers to new standards-compliant ones. Designers mustn't move too quickly in publishing only standards-compliant Web pages because users of older browsers—Netscape 3.0 received special mention—will be faced with broken pages.

Designers will need to come up with a sensible transition policy that is based on the client's needs, the particular audience for any given Web page, and the content of that page.

Zeldman ended his standards discussion by making four specific promises in regard to the eventual adoption of Web standards. He said that it will result in the "true separation of style from content, making the Web accessible to all," a point of particular importance given the proliferation of non-PC Web-enabled devices coming onto the market. Zeldman promised that Web standards will result in increased presentational and transactional sophistication. He promised a streamlining of Web production based on the elimination of versioning, and finally a concomitant reduction of Web production costs.

Designers and developers can find a list of Web standards and resources for learning more about their implementation at the Wasp Web site.

Read about:
Web Accessibility
Closing Keynote Address


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