Web standards born in 'flame wars' due to lack of leadership

Wellington's Webstock conference goes straight to the heart of the matter: standards

The web, ideas on what to do with it and applications to take advantage of it seem to advance at a dizzying pace which some find difficult to cope with. The annual Webstock conference is one forum where people excited or perturbed by this growth can take stock and share their ideas and impressions.

However, web standards specialist Molly Holzschlag sounded a contrasting note early in this week’s Webstock conference, pointing to the slow progress and acrimony surrounding the evolution of what she now calls “good practice” in web design and the tools that make it possible.

There are good, but also “sad” and “fugly” elements to the halting progress of the effort that has been misnamed “web standards”, she says. Ten years after HTML 4.0, the definition of HTML 5.0 has just gone into working draft, she says — hardly a meteoric progress.

The working draft has some very good ideas in it and some very complicated ideas, designed to cope with what the web has become and what designers, implementers, users and businesses now want from it, she says.

HTML is moved far beyond a simple markup language, incorporating features that recognise the web as a means for applications to communicate and collaborate rather than simply for display and management of relatively stable content.

Holzschlag has been in the thick of the disputes — Webstock delegates who have observed them closely do not hesitate to use the term “flame wars” — surrounding the evolution of so-called standards for the web. Beyond the technical problems and delays there are “fractioned ideologies” and a lack of leadership, Holzschlag says.

She has had, in particular, a running dispute with fellow web standards expert Jeffrey Zeldman over various elements of new standards, covering whether there is a crisis in development of best practice and interoperability, and the extent to which leading standards body W3C is open or closed to stakeholders in the web world.

W3C’s working groups “are becoming more open allowing for broader participation from the working community,” Holzschlag says, while at the same time emphasising she is not defending the less good aspects of W3C.

There is no visible strong driver for the effort, whether it’s called standards or good practice, she says; “[web founder] Tim Berners-Lee is brilliant, but he’s not a leader.”

Lack of effective collaboration means large parts of the draft specifications for the future framework of the web are being done by solo authors.

“That can speed things up, but it can become a question of one man, one agenda.”

Then there is Microsoft Internet Explorer: “part of the pain we feel every day”, Holzschlag says, but still the gateway to the web for the vast majority of users.

Microsoft, she says, is moving away from the open development community and has said it will not implement the emerging but still uncertain XHTML specification until it has been “properly defined”. At the same time, Microsoft is itself in the middle of fundamental upgrades such as replacing its Trident rendering engine.

This poses the question of how those who want to move the web ahead and close to the original vision of interoperability between browsers and other web software are to accommodate what they produce to the de facto IE6 “standard”.

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Tags W3CwebstockDevelopment IDmolly holzschlag

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