Monday, June 14, 2004

Even more on web standards

There's been a little evangelism fatigue in the web-standards world, but recently I've had a sense that the web-standards strategy is shifting.

Where early standards evangelism focused on the technology and the code (look at the cool things you can do with CSS!), more recent discussions frame the web-standards approach for a broader audience. The value of web standards isn't just that the coders can work out ways to do neat stuff -- the value is in reusability, in future-proofing, in automated processing.

The value of web standards is that they save time, they save effort, and they save money.

Simon Willison suggests that we should stop harping on "standards" and start using "best practice" instead. Excellence in web development and design is about so much more than proper coding, anyway -- why should we look like we're being pedantic about closing all our tags when we're also trying to get benefits for search engine placement and accessibility while we're at it?

Molly Holzschlag writes about evangelism frustrations and standards backlash, suggesting that we shouldn't throw our hands up and frustration and walk away, but instead keep fighting the good fight.

Standards evangelism can't go away, but it does need to change its approach to a more comprehensive method.

The dialog has to continue, and so must the cause for standards. But obviously we need to reassess how we're doing it, and I believe that it couldn't be a better time to do just that.

Regardless of what some people (including the validation zealots) think, the web standards movement isn't about the code. It's about giving everyone a quality experience online, not just the group using Technology A or Technology B.

Molly hopes the Web Standards Project can get on this wave, and I hope so too. I'd like to know if there's some way for me to help, join, something. As she points out in her post, the WaSP oftentimes looks like a bunch of gurus, and the rest of us aren't worthy.

Andrei Herasimchuk writes about standards as well, this time from the angle of how to use standards as leverage.

Generally speaking, standards are a means to apply pressure on corporations to behave in a manner that is beneficial to everyone, not just the shareholders of the corporation.

(He also includes in his post a nice list of links to other articles/discussion about web standards.)

Andrei and Molly have a similar idea: Push for standards in order to show up just how bad Microsoft has been about supporting (not web standards) growth and innovation online. Use our standards leverage to nudge them toward doing things that benefit all of us who do things online, not just the almighty monopoly and its stockholders.

In the end, Andrei warns us about the dangers of a software monoculture by way of Isaac Asimov. If we fall into such a situation, the people in control of that monoculture can then control each of us. How many of us, even the ones who don't do web work, really want Microsoft deciding what's right for us to do? How many of us want to ask Microsoft's permission to look at our own files?

We're already seeing another effect of the software monoculture -- the wildfire spread of viruses, worms, and other malware made possible by Windows' ubiquity and insecurity. (To be fair, Microsoft wasn't the only one to not see the huge security threat coming.)

Just as Molly talks about giving new direction to WaSP, Andrei suggests new direction for the W3C. It's time for the W3C to take on a more active role -- their home page proudly says "Leading the Web to Its Full Potential", but they're busy having ivory-tower dreams of Standards Yet To Come while those of us in the real world can't get CSS2 to work.

In the end, if web standards are important as a means for creating an expected level playing field, creating a lowest common denominator, then it is useful to know what the expected lowest common denominator should be.

Instead of "worrying about the next generation of the Internet", they should make sure the current generation actually happens. A few items from Andrei's suggestions for the W3C:

  • When I browse the XHTML or CSS specs, the most important thing I want to see is the current standard, not past standards, or future specs still in development.
  • Determine what group of specs should be considered critical to this first phase of web development.... Once we have content delivery systems that can handle this second list of specs 100%, then we can discuss what the next level should be.
  • The current specs are horrendously inappropriate for the kind of person who needs the knowledge in applying standards.
  • It’s time the W3C sharpened the focus to how the rest of the world should view standards, not how the group wants to operate as a bureaucratic entity.

Ah, but what dicussion of web standards would be complete without mention of Microsoft? Microsoft's most famous blogger, Robert Scoble, writes in response to Molly's post:

The thing is, whenever I talk with "normal" users (those who aren't in the computer industry) the first thing they complain to me about are phishing attacks, spam, spyware, and viruses. I have not had a SINGLE person in the plane ask me for Web standards.

...

I see a trend there. The bleeding edge of the Web has moved away from HTML and onto other fronts -- fronts where the standards bodies have not yet been involved.

Rather too typically for the Microsoft evangelist, he fails to see the problem. This isn't a matter of "bleeding edge", and nobody said it was.

Scoble's "normal" user is worried about spam and security because that's what he's being forced to deal with at home. The "normal" user isn't building web sites and trying to get a simple CSS layout to function. That's fine -- if everyone had my skill set, I'd have a hard time finding a job.

But the "normal" user is using the Internet -- where else would these phishing attacks, spam, spyware, and viruses be coming from? That makes the "normal" user a beneficiary of web standards.

The "normal" user spends time on the web, reading news web sites, browsing for hobby information, downloading files, and ordering products from merchants all over the place. Maybe even merchants like Microsoft. Maybe Scoble's "normal" user is an MSN member.

Scoble has mischaracterized the average middle of the user community before, and I've found the numbers to back up the observation. Scoble thinks the "normal" user doesn't care about web standards, but one of his commenters notes "End users aren't crying out for the .NET Framework either, so according to such reasoning it shouldn't be a priority either."

As usual, the point is that web standards are for everyone -- for the "average" user who gets a stable, clean, and clear web site to use; for the web developers and designers who can predict what their sites and applications will do for their users; for the companies who hire the designers and developers, getting more bang for their buck; and for server software makers like Microsoft, who can sell more application platforms as demand grows.

But with $50 billion in the bank, Microsoft is content to put its hands over its ears and go "la la la, I'm not listening" while the rest of us find other ways to do our jobs. One day, Microsoft may just find that nobody's listening to them for a change.

It's not about code, it's about business. Everyone's business. Even your mom's.