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
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
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
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
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 browsersNetscape 3.0 received special
mentionwill 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