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1.6. The Importance of Standards

The Internet was built on standards. When a need for functionality was identified (email attachments, for example) a person or group proposed a system to make it work. After a discussion phase, the proposal was made public in the form of a Request for Comments (RFC). The RFC process is overseen by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet (see http://www.ietf.org for more information). Once the kinks were worked out, other developers adopted the method and a standard was born.

The Web, with its early explosion of excitement and opportunism, skipped over this traditional standards process. Although the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a group of industry experts and professionals who guide the evolution of the Web) began working on HTML standards in 1994, the browser software companies didn't wait for them.

Once Netscape Navigator popped up on the scene with its set of proprietary tags, they set in motion the process by which we've inherited the browser chaos outlined in this chapter. The problem only got worse as web design grew beyond simple HTML to encompass richer web technologies such as Cascading Style Sheets and DHTML. Not only does developing for a multitude of incompatible browsers cause headaches, but redundant development time also costs a lot of money.

It didn't take long for the development community to say, "Enough is enough!" and demand that the browser creators slow down and abide by the web standards set forth by the W3C. The champion of this effort is the Web Standards Project (WaSP). WaSP is a collective of web developers who are pushing hard for action.

Their first goal, of course, is to get all browsers to support the same standards for HTML and other web technologies. In an ideal world, there would be one way to code a page for a particular effect, and it would work exactly the same way on 100% of the browsers, regardless of platform. Although Netscape 6 and Internet Explorer 5 (Mac) and Internet Explorer 5.5 (Windows) boast standards compliance, there are still a few bugs to work out. It will also take some years for older browser versions to fade away. But the current trend is encouraging.

WaSP also works hard to educate web developers on the need to observe standards. The end goal is total observance of standards, which means that web content and style information should be kept separate: the content in a structured HTML or XML document, and the instructions for how it is displayed contained in a style sheet. This becomes especially pertinent as we see more alternative browsing clients (such as wireless handheld devices with tiny screens) hitting the scenes. As long as web designers continue to use <font> and other hacks to the HTML concept, the standards effort is diluted and web content is not fully accessible.

The third community WaSP takes on is the developers of web authoring tools. Currently, the code generated by WYSIWYG authoring tools is far from standard (note the abundance of <font> tags and cheats for creating indents). It is essential that the available tools make it simple for developers to create web pages properly -- using standard HTML for structure and style sheets for presentation.

Every web designer should be well versed in the importance of standards. For a thorough (albeit strongly opinionated) introduction, visit the Web Standards Project site at http://www.webstandards.org. To study the specifics, go right to the source, the World Wide Web Consortium's site at http://www.w3.org.

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