Whither the web – experts see fickle future

Conference papers suggest a more user-friendly web is still a way off

The web is at a crossroads and efforts to tame it are faltering, says web standards expert Molly Holzschlag.

Holzschlag, a key figure in the internet standards effort, says web standards aren’t really standards at all; they are nothing more than recommendations. Indeed, her conference presentation for the forthcoming Webstock conference is titled: “Web standards aren’t”.

As her blog says, they’re “aspirational goals”. Separation of content and format, for example, is desirable and seems deceptively simple, but, in practice, is hard to achieve without making compromises.

Such difficulties make taming the internet difficult, and mean efforts to make it more accessible — and usable — to ordinary people in a consistent way are faltering.

Other topics on the programme for the Webstock conference, which is being held in Wellington next month, back up this perception uncertainty over where the web is heading.

The flood of innovation — social networking and the effort to introduce semantics to improve web-search, in particular — has resulted in confusion and also bumped up workloads.

The growing range of access devices, applications needing accommodation, and data formats to be managed has only added to the problem.

Another speaker, author and web-writing specialist Rachel McAlpine, explores these issues in her presentation: “Look Ma, no quills”.

“Every new tool to make communication easier also makes it harder,” she says. Documents have to be searched and indexed in different ways for different needs; accommodated to viewing on two-inch and 17-inch screens; “replicated, cloned and mutated. Technology makes demands; some obvious, some sneaky”.

The result: new etiquettes and safe practices have to be learned for every new mode of web interaction, she says.

New Zealander Nat Torkington undertakes to give Webstockers “a lightning journey through the trends that matter for web programmers, designers, and managers” in his talk. He says much of the time the best we can do is search for “faint signals” among the technological and social trends — and try to amplify the ones that matter.

Torkington is technical publisher at O’Reilly’s, and a long-time conference organiser.

Another distinguished Kiwi speaker on the bill is Craig Neville-Manning, Google’s director of engineering in New York.

And Kathy Sierra, who missed last year’s Webstock as a result of threatening blog postings, has agreed to speak at this year’s conference. Her talk will be on her favourite topic: creating passionate users.

The big Webstock conference will be held from February 14-15, in Wellington, but there will be three days of workshops preceding this. For more details go to: www.webstock.org.nz

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