Regarding Unrest in the Web Standards Community

Posted: August 20, 2007 Comments(7)

I’m not going to assume everybody has been following the (sometimes heated) discussion surrounding the Web standards movement over the past week or so. I’d like to first give a brief overview on what’s happened, and offer my two cents on the surrounding issues. At the root, some designers, developers, and those devoted to the Web have become frustrated with the rate at which the some agencies and organizations operate, as well as the true goals of said organizations.

The spark that ignited

While the debate may have been smoldering under the surface, the post that [more or less] caused the blaze to ignite was Dear W3c, Dear WaSP by Molly E. Holzschlag, in which she states:

Pay attention, W3C and anyone who cares. We have serious problems. On the surface:

  • HTML 5 serialization under W3C
  • Run Time Environments such as AIR
  • Personal agendas overriding agendas that serve the greater good

I call on my colleagues, my friends to talk about this.

Are you all just dumbed down by the fact you’ve got a job or what? Tell me. Let’s fix it. W3C, WaSP, whatever. We have problems.

Let’s talk about them and figure something out.

In her post, Ms. Holzschlag takes a firm stance behind her position regarding the state of the Web and those behind its advancing. She plainly asks for commentary on the issues in an effort to get them resolved.

The wide range of response

I strongly urge everyone to read the thread of responses posted in reaction to the entry (as well as the follow up entry), as the authors are many we have come to respect as industry leaders. Reading comment threads such as those illustrates wonderfully the point I was trying to make in 9 Ways to Improve Yourself: read and talk as much as you can.

The responses range from whole-hearted support to all out opposition, each with strong points to support each case. Many designers and developers sympathize with Ms. Holzschlag in saying too little is being done and that little bit is taking way too long. Others argue that something so large in scope must be approached slowly, with every aspect researched, supported, and understood.

One of the most notable, direct responses was What crisis? from Mr. Jeffrey Zeldman. In his reaction, he states:

Certainly the W3C moves at a glacial pace. It’s why we write float when we mean column. But a glacial pace isn’t all bad, especially if you’re driving off a cliff (which I gather we are). Driving off a cliff at a glacial pace affords you the luxury to turn around. I loves me some glacial pace.

The glacial pace of the W3C has given browser makers time to understand and more correctly implement existing standards. It has also given designers and developers time to understand, fall in love with, and add new abilities to existing standards.

Mr. Zeldman, as many others, is simply asking for a [somewhat detailed] breakdown of the crisis as viewed by so many, because he isn’t aware of such. There are also many other great, well thought-out responses to be read, so be sure to read what you can.

My personal opinion on the matter

I tend to have an opinion on many things, but in this specific circumstance, I must admit I’m quite divided. I can see strong points from both sides, and I am unable to stand firmly behind one side over another. I am very much in support of the advancement of Web standards, and understand that adjustments should be allowed ample time to become established. On the other hand, the time for implementation can be measured in decades when it comes to the W3C, and that can become frustrating.

I can completely support wonderful write-ups on this issue (and again great comments) by legends such as Jeff Croft, and I can also see where Zeldman is coming from. Implementation can’t be rushed when you’re working with such an entirely huge project. Taking a snippet from the comments on Mr. Croft’s post — it would be great if browser manufacturers began to push updates to the browser rendering engine itself (as opposed to the entire browser) in an effort to speed this process along. Flash has been operating this way for some time, and it does in fact seem to be working out.

In conclusion, I can’t really say that I am completely fed up with the way the W3C operates — mostly because I am still trying to establish myself in completely understanding the process and those involved. I do not see myself as enough of an authority to have an established opinion on these issues yet. Yes, I work with the Web on a daily basis, and try to make the Web a better place with what I do, but these men and women have made the Web what it is today. I can completely understand where veteran, industry leading designers and developers are becoming frustrated, and I love reading what they have to say. Their knowledge and experience is some of the best information we can read. Me being able to read intelligent arguments from both sides greatly helps in my decision making process.

Many people view (X)HTML/CSS as stale in favor of a (flashy) Flash application, and it’s hard to blame them. Nothing dramatic has happened on the markup and style front in quite some time, and Flash has really taken the spotlight because it’s able to innovate and globally deploy and become adopted at an extraordinary rate. In my opinion, it would be fantastic if the W3C aimed to work at that speed.

Most importantly; what about you?

If you haven’t spoken your mind about this issue ten times over thus far, I’d love to hear your opinion on the matter. Do you think the W3C is too glacial for anyone’s good? Would you rather have browser rendering engine upgrades a la Flash player? What other thoughts do you have on the issue?

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  1. Would you rather have browser rendering engine upgrades a la Flash player?

    Now that’s an interesting concept. One that hadn’t even crossed my mind but makes perfect sense. After all, I’ve been hearing about CSS 3 selectors since I got into the standards game and they’re still not finalized. Last I heard, they published draft 15 or some shit.

    CSS support in browsers is a sucky topic overall. With people hanging onto old, shitty browsers when they are several free alternatives that are light-years better is mind boggling. And unless somehow standardizing browser versions globally becomes a reality, the glacial pace of the W3C isn’t going to improve any time soon.

    I’ve pretty much taken a stance of simply not caring about and ignoring things like this. You know, things that aren’t going to happen for years to come, if they do at all. It’s great to think that maybe things will be better down the road and web developers won’t have to test in 18 versions of 6 browsers across 3 operation systems before they push a site out the door, but that’s totally not going to happen. I’ve come to terms, and I’m fine with it. 😛

  2. I think that I’d love to see the rendering engine be a “patch” for browsers. Like WebKit could be updated every 2 months while Safari be updated with each OS X iteration.

    As per how I view the entire “Web Standards Community” status – I think we’ve come a very long way. But, I think all communities need a kick in the pants every now and then and Molly is the perfect person to do that. Right or wrong, the discussions were started.

  3. The W3C needs to move faster. Right now we’re all struggling to make do with the tools that we have at hand. Those tools simply aren’t good enough anymore. There needs to be far more pull from the community, enough pull to force Microsoft, Mozilla et al to move everything along. It would be irresponsible for these groups to simply start implementing random things based on individual requests, that’s why the W3C needs to take a stand as a whole.

  4. [quote]Many people view (X)HTML/CSS as stale in favor of a (flashy) Flash application[/quote]
    I don’t understand why people would be expecting excitement in xhtml/css if by that they mean changes in the standards. Movement on full support by all browser vendors would be an exciting move, but I don’t see a need for excitement in the standards themselves.
    I confess that I haven’t followed the CSS 3.0 situation at all. I’m presuming there is a need for it, but it seems to me that we’d be a lot farther ahead overall if we could count on full support for what we’ve got.
    I’m with Zeldman that if CSS 3.0 needs to be done, then it needs to be done right – and that takes time. Perhaps not as much time as it IS taking, but it can’t be rushed. In the meantime the real problem is with the browser vendors more than it is with the standards bodies.

  5. @Matt Brett: I think render engine updates would put more pressure on the powers that be to implement changes more quickly. I would love to be able to realistically use CSS3 in my day-to-day projects. It really is tough working with the wide variety of Web browsers out there. Imagine how much further ahead the Web would be if Internet Explorer didn’t exist in the present. It’s things like that we can daydream about.

    @Colin Devroe: I agree – I think it’s fantastic that a single post has sparked so much conversation and debate within the industry.

    @Eddie: Many people absolutely share your stance. Lots of people feel that our toolset has become old and rusty and needs some revamping for sure. Thanks for leaving your thoughts!

    @Ernie: Definitely, this is why I’m torn between both sides of things. Implementation of something on such a gigantic scale can’t be rushed in my opinion. I plan on becoming much more involved in the day-to-day operations of the W3C so I can better wrap my head around what’s really (or really not) going on.

  6. It’s interesting that you cite the rate of development of Flash as an example.
    Remember the IE vs. Netscape browser wars? Both sides were innovating away as fast as they could go, introducing new ideas with every browser update. But practically none of these were cross-browser compatible!
    That’s the rub: a single entity, that makes the spec and the sole implementation, can innovate and drive ‘progress’ very quickly. But as soon as you get more than one: chaos. The W3C has to make specs for a huge variety of people to implement. That means that (a) the specs cannot change very quickly, and (b) the specs have to be near-perfect before they can be finalised.
    I believe the problem is not with the available standards, nor with the W3C. It’s with the browser companies. HTML 4.01, anyone? CSS 2.1? SVG 1.1? DOM 2? Been around for years, stable and mature specs. Still not fully implemented in most browsers.
    And the argument that it’s the W3C’s fault no-one’s implemented CSS3 yet? Nonsense. The core modules – selectors and layout, for instance – are mature and stable too, if anyone bothered to check. And the whole point of dividing CSS3 into modules was that browsers could implement them one by one. (Congratulations to Opera, by the way, for fully supporting the CSS3 selectors module in 9.5.)
    Rather than criticising the W3C just because it’s fashionable, or demanding yet more specs that won’t be implemented for years, if ever, the web standards community (and I mean designers and developer as well as standards-makers) should issue the browser makers a challenge: The next major versions should implement HTML 4.01, XHTML 1.0, CSS 2.1, SVG 1.1 and DOM 2 in their entirety.
    Any takers?

  7. @Matt Babbs: Wow, what a great comment. First: thank you!

    Your point is spot on. A single company working on a single implementation can basically do whatever is within their reach in a timeframe of their choosing. Something like the W3C developing specifications for each and every case is almost an entirely different case. I read you loud and clear on a lacking effort when it comes to browser makers. Thank you again so much for taking the time to write your thoughts, your comment has definitely made this article that much more valuable.

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