UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Losing My Religion

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 Feb 2008

I discovered the Web in December 1992 and, after Christmas, helped to set up the institutional Web site at the University of Leeds. Later that month I met Robert Cailliau, a colleague of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, when Robert was in Leeds visit relatives. Robert gave me the background to the developments of the Web and it was around that time I subscribed to the www-talk mailing list. This was the start of my belief in a Web based on standards developed by an open community.  And I can remember the controversy caused when NCSA, in their development of the Mosaic browser, broke with the consensus in the format of the IMG tag. Marc Andreessen made a proposal which generated debate. However Marc chose to ignore Tim’s suggestions:

Tim Berners-Lee writes:
> Let the IMG tag be INCLUDE and let it refer to an arbitrary document
> type. Or EMBED if INCLUDE sounds like a cpp include which people
> will expect to provide SGML source code to be parsed inline — not
> what was intended.
We’re not prepared to support INCLUDE/EMBED at this point; it raises a
number of nasty issues that are quite separate from the idea of
inlined images.

What happened was that Mosaic was released to universal acclaim. But later, when the lack of extensibility of the IMG tag became apparent, the Netscape browser was released and introduced a more effective way of embedding content other than images, using the EMBED tag. And Marc promoted supported support for this proprietary tag over the limited IMG tag as a killer feature of Netscape.  Similar tactics which Microsoft have been guilty of over the years.

It’s not just Microsoft, you have to be wary of software vendors in general as they all have vested interests in proprietary lock-in, has been my belief over the years. Stick with the W3C, I’ve felt. They are independent of vendors and will be best positioned to provide open standards which everyone can use, I’ve argued over the years.

But over time I’ve begun to question the wisdom of this view. I raised this issue last June in a post entitled “Are W3C Crazy?” in which I picked up on a comment made by Phil Wilson, a Web developer based at the University of Bath. Phil told me, based on his attendance at the XTech 2007 conference that:

There seemed to be a couple of big fat W3C elephants in the room.

The first was that the w3c are doing stuff for use in five or ten years’ time whereas most of the other talks are about things you can do today or next year, which makes them seem like futurologists.

The other is that they really didn’t seem that happy that HTML5 was going ahead, and what the hell was wrong with XHTML2 anyway?

It must be nice to work in a standards organisation where everything you do meets some Platonic Idea of perfection.

Are W3C working in a purist world in which everything needs to meet a Platonic idea of perfection? Others, including long standing Web standards evangelists, seem to be raising similar concerns. Molly (of, a well-known author of dozens of books on Web standards) is the latest to raise her concerns. In a post on “From Web Standards Diva to Web Standards Devo” she makes a startling suggestion:

I’m going to design my new site with frames, tables, spacer gifs, lots of flash embedded into framed pages via iframes. I’m going to use non-semantic, presentational HTML, table based layouts, and lots of inline CSS.

The frightening issue is that I can build such a site so it will validate, pass at least WCAG priority 1 accessibility and have effective SEO.

However she goes on to say:

The mere fact that I can actually do all that and be in compliance with specs should help clarify my point, I hope. It’s not the specs that define Web Standards. We are talking about best practices. We use the term “standards” fast and loose, and for an industry that is so interested in semantics, I find it endlessly ironic that we have chosen such a piss poor description to define a certain level of professional practices.

This post is a follow-up from one on “Web Standards Aren’t” which, as with many of Molly’s posts, succeeds in generating much debate, including contributions from some of the leading lights in Web standards development work.

I met Molly at the W4A 2005 conference when I gave a paper on “Forcing Standardization or Accommodating Diversity? A Framework for Applying the WCAG in the Real World“. This was my radical paper in which I suggested, to a room full of Web accessibility experts, that Web accessibility wasn’t about conforming with a technical set of universal standards, but in identifying best practices which would support users in the particular tasks they were engaged in. Molly, who I didn’t know at the time, supported various comments I made at the conference, which led to various late night drinking sessions at the conference (but I won’t go into that!)

And now Molly is taking the debate even further. and other leading standards-based developers are raising similar concerns, such as Andy Clark’s post dated 11 February 2008 on “transcending the web of today” in which he suggests:

Transcending is about moving away from outdated notions, for example that a design should look the same in all browsers. It is about designing the best possible visual experience for people using the best browsers (and then considering what happens for people using outdated technologies). This is the opposite of progressive enhancement where a designer would design for the most common, lowest common denominator browser (even it is the least capable), and then add extra visual decoration to reward people who use more modern software. Transcending about designing the best for the best.

If leading lights such as Molly and Andy (who have both published books on Web standards, given many prresentations on this topic and beern active in W3C working groups) are questioning the W3C vision, we should pay heed. Have W3C lost the authority they once had? Have the dangers posed by software vendors leading the development of standards simply been replaced by the dangers of a group of researchers and purists who are happy to develop  sophisticated solutions which may fail to gain acceptance in the marketplace?

It’s not longer just a question of passively accepting the vision of the standards developers, I’m afraid. And if you don’t believe me, tell me -do you think the future lies in W3C’s XHTML 2 standard (July 2006 draft) or W3C’s HTML 5 standard (hmm, latest draft came out on 11 February 2008)? If there’s a schism within W3C and W3C Consortium Members such as Microsoft, Sun, Opera and Google, which sect will you follow? Or do you feel the need to avoid the religious wars and join the agnostics?

4 Responses to “Losing My Religion”

  1. Colour me agnostic.

    Lots of the W3C’s standards have historically carried much equivocation. One of the things I remember about reading WCAG1 was seeing the authors pretty much say that in the end, running resources through automated testing just wasn’t possible and that when push came to shove you just had to go with your own judgment.

    Much of the push towards the XHTML vision came from a view of the web that owed much to TBL’s semantic vision. But most of us now see the Semantic Web as being horribly splintered and, in some cases, dying on the vine. A web for machines is still only in its early infancy so, yes, the W3C is getting close to obsessing over the long term and forgetting about the problems of now. In that sense, HTML 5 is useful but isn’t really a solution for the 10 years down the line you mention – a world of much more machine-mediated connection and mobile needs. That’s why we need XHTML 2 as well.

    At this point I must look like an appalling fence-sitter, as indeed I am. I tend to work to XHTML1.x Strict standards for what I do, for example, because it fits the purpose of my work. We should never lose sight of why we are doing what we do, not for whom do it. If we don’t, we don’t forget that the standards are really a peripheral concern – useful and good, but not the driving reason for a project. And it should never become that way because if it does, we risk leaving our audiences behind and becoming utterly irrelevant.

    Let things stand or fall on their strengths; if XHTML2 is really necessary and useful it will survive. If not, it will not. simple as that. The same applies to HTML5. Get them both out there and let some Darwinism happen.

  2. Hi Darren – I think we have similar views.

    I also try to ensure that my pages comply with XHTML 1 strict – but sometimes this isn’t easy to achieve. For example on my Web site pages with embedded widgets tend not to validate. However I no longer worry about this.

    And yes, the future will be based around the HTML standards that are adopted in the marketplace, rather than being imposed top-down. But that Darwinian struggle needs to be informed by discssion and debate, as we’re having and is taking place elsewhere, including the blogs I’ve mentioned,

  3. Hi Brian

    Been following on Twitter for a while but this one make me want to join in…

    I think your comment ‘I no longer worry about this’ pretty much sums up my entire attitude to W3C and even accessibility: I now have confidence that by following a web-standards approach I am going to be %95 ‘the good guy’. I validate, of course, but spend most of my dev time browser checking and user testing.

    The ONLY time I go on about W3C standards is when I am writing specifications for big stupid useless IT companies: Then I put it all in. Makes them nervous as hell and they know I mean business. Then, later on in the project (usuallly after I have showed them how to code html/css properly) they breathe a massive sigh of relief when I am relaxed about whether thier CMS of choice doesn’t do X, Y or Z and become my friends :-)

    Then every year or so someone wanders past my desk and says ‘is out site W-three something compliant?’ and I say ‘Yes’ and they go away happy, having ticked their box.

    That is how relevant the W3C is to me at the moment. My opinion of the organisation – head in the clouds, amateurish, academic. All of which is fine and in some contexts they are all good qualitites, but by missing so badly on the ‘new’ accessibility guidelines they are just making themselves irrelevant.



  4. […] although I have already confessed to losing my religion the Jesuits may well have been right in their views on the power of indoctrination in early years. […]

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