A List Apart

Web Standards 2008: Three Circles of Hell

Web Standards 2008: Three Circles of Hell

“Blame is the cure, cure anything”—Mike Doughty

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Readers and conference participants know that the more I write and talk about web standards, the more I point out that they really don’t exist. Step back with me for a moment: we wouldn’t need a web standards movement if there were standards! We continue to do the very best work we can to arrive at a standard of quality and professionalism. Sadly, however, despite a decade or more of web standards evangelism, we face the prospect of losing whatever influence we’ve gained these past years.

I’m going to share some of my thoughts on the problematic and constructive influences on most folks working in web standards today. I challenge you to counter these pros and cons as you see them, and to discuss without blame how to drive the web forward while maintaining the ideals and best practices we hold so dear.

The usual suspects

Frustration can easily lead to finger pointing. But blame, despite singer and poet Mike Doughty telling us it’s the “cure, cure anything,” well, we all know blame only takes us so far.

But that doesn’t mean it’s unfair to take a realistic look at the forces on front-end development and design, particularly in relation to HTML and CSS. This is especially true for those of us who believe that the web belongs to all of us, and not to any company, government, or other organization.

As an invited expert to the W3C, a frequent colleague and friend of many of the WHATWG folks, and after an 18-month-long dip in the deep end of the Internet Explorer pool, I began to think a little finger-pointing was in order. There are flaws and wrongdoings in all aspects of what we do, such as the software developed on our behalf and the technologies we’re supposed to take from the theoretical to the practical. So much upset generates from these issues that it makes our job one of the most misunderstood on the planet.

Circle 1: academic and scientific—the W3C

The W3C often gets the blunt end of our middle fingers when we run into problems with specifications. I believe this is due to unclear specifications written for academics and scientists. Accused of being the “ivory tower” despite its attempts in recent years to be more community-oriented, the W3C is a group of industry scientists and academics working for member companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Opera Software, and so on. Finger pointing occurs because we as a community feel left out.

You’re invited. Can you afford it?

Yes, there are invited experts who mitigate bias, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to bring them on board. As an invited expert, I’m responsible for all expenses related to the work, including long distance telephone charges, or travel expenses to the south of France for a week of intensive meetings. These expenses can be an economic barrier that prevent independents from participating.

As a result, many working groups end up focused on the interests of member companies. To be fair, it’s true that the W3C only allows a set number of votes per member company per issue, but the agendas of member companies are nevertheless promoted—often successfully.

Taking their ball and going home

I recently witnessed a member company representative shut down an entire line of discussion simply by saying, “This compromises several of our patents. We will remove ourselves from the W3C if you proceed.” With a history of no viable long-term economic model, the W3C cannot afford to lose members, particularly when they are mission critical to many evolving specifications.

I became very despondent witnessing this, knowing how difficult it is for the W3C to create an environment where these issues are easily dealt with. The fact is, however, that the world—because of the web—is changing. This means that the way we deal with intellectual property is going to have to change too. But until that time, I’m not sure we can really say the W3C is open, nor do I believe they are deserving of blame, per se.

W3C pros and cons


  • Global
  • Academic and scientific body
  • Multiple interests represented, but mostly from paid member companies
  • Attempting to be more open via certain teams such as the HTML5 and CSS Working Groups
  • Attempting to appeal more to work-a-day world via redesigns, blogs, and more human-friendly language throughout the site


  • Creates “open standards” by ideal, not necessarily fact
  • Incredibly slow moving in a highly evolutionary environment
  • Poor economic model that relies on membership monies
  • Discourages independents and open process
  • Passive: only creates specs and recommends, does not do real outreach
  • “Ivory tower” perception

Some have suggested that the W3C is obsolete,  and that the real solution is to disband it. I believe that without a very strong alternative in place, that would be disastrous: currently, the W3C is the only place where these member companies discuss and work through issues.

A new, authentic infrastructure, along with new economic models, and some way to bring in independents, could be very helpful. In fact, on Sunday, September 14th, 2008, a new foundation was announced to do just that. The World Wide Web Foundation   has received seed money to help the W3C and expects to have a full plan in place by 2009. While this is a hopeful plan, how it will play out beyond the W3C and influence the community at large won’t be realized for some time to come.

Circle two: revolutionary and disruptive—independent working groups

A number of organizations have emerged outside the W3C due to the frustrations people feel within W3C working groups. Two excellent examples of this are the WCAG Samurai, a closed group with undisclosed membership, and the WHATWG, an open group that works transparently. Both groups offer an interesting response to the issues raised in the first-circle discussion: they are both revolutionary and disruptive.

Other grassroots groups, such as The Web Standards Project (WaSP) and the Web Standards Group (WSG) focus on advocacy rather than actually writing specifications. The need for these groups is unquestionable in today’s environment, as they perform the outreach that the W3C and the other independent groups do not.


Because of the open rather than anonymous nature of WHATWG, I’ll use them in our discussion since their work has already been adopted in part by the W3C and portions of HTML5 are being implemented by browser vendors.

WHATWG formed out of frustration with the W3C for refusing to evolve HTML, and because XHTML, meant to be the next generation lingua franca, has never been implemented by Internet Explorer.

A number of clever lads including Ian Hickson, Lachlan Hunt, Henri Sivonen, Anne van Kesteren, Dean Edwards, and other thought leaders, believed this was unacceptable. They believe HTML needs to evolve semantically as well as functionally (forms, for example). WHATWG worked quickly, proving that independent organizations without funding could get things done quickly and well.

The WHATWG’s work is now the basis for the W3C’s new and “open” HTML5 Working Group, which, to quote Dorothy Parker, is a “fresh hell.” However, the WHATWG and the HTML5 Working Group continue to work separately despite sharing many resources.

Independent working group pros and cons


  • Revolutionary
  • Disruptive: demands change
  • No economic bias
  • Many views represented (in the ideal)
  • Incredibly agile
  • Easier to create and publish independent open source specifications
  • Meritocracy: actions are based in passion and vision rather than profit-oriented


  • Lack of clear leadership—too many cooks can spoil the proverbial soup
  • No economic support—volunteer-based
  • Too agile also can mean not enough time for research, collegial discussion with other groups (for example, WHATWG and the Accessibility community)
  • Very high risk of being overly aggressive
  • Very high risk of becoming mono-cultural, led by a single person or small group with the majority of people going along with the idea because it’s the “right” thing to do

Circle 3: self interest and profiteering—proprietary technologies

Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, and Google are among the most powerful businesses involved with proprietary intellectual property. They share a less-than-cooperative information sharing philosophy as they seek to create rich platforms that will, to quote Steve Ballmer “win” the web. Flex, Silverlight, and even WebKit’s evolution often take place outside the community, with self-interest and profit as goals—not an open and flexible web.

Pros and cons of proprietary technologies


  • Global
  • Strong economic initiative
  • One view represented
  • More agile
  • Easier to be first to market
  • Easier to be innovative


  • Closed
  • Non-communicative
  • Aggressive
  • Profit-oriented—not necessarily quality oriented
  • A major cog in the interoperability process

Broad latitudes

So, what do we do as working designers, developers, content managers, and evangelists who seek to truly better the web in an open, interoperable way?

We’ve tried stuff. WaSP, WSG, and so on. These groups have assisted with education and outreach, and are the glue of our community. But these groups also risk becoming irrelevant (some already think of them that way) since they appear to be doing nothing to solve the web’s fundamental problems.

Should we create yet another group? That was my first thought, but that just adds another layer of confusion to the problem. If we meditate instead on the pros and cons of these three circles, we may actually find the right people, identify key problems, and possibly find the way to unite rather than divide our community even further.

Tipping points

The moment proprietary technologies gain a stranglehold, we slip that much farther away from web standards. Nothing demonstrates this more than Internet Explorer. Nothing demonstrates this more than Apple’s bid to implement aspects of CSS3, that have not yet been passed as recommendations, in WebKit (potentially compromising the way the W3C can work in the future). Nothing demonstrates this more than Mozilla’s and Opera’s inability to grow a user base beyond a certain point.

Can we solve the problem? I’ve never been a fortune teller, but I am an optimist. I believe we have amazing people in each of these circles who can come together and make things happen. The trick is to hone in on the pros, find ways of dealing with the cons, find the people who really get stuff done, and keep the talk as open as possible.

If we overlap the circles, we find that each share commonalities to build on. It is that center we need to strengthen—and not burden the problem with more committees at this point. Over-bureaucratization will be the death knell for any good we’ve caused thus far.

How do we fix the web? Discuss.

Can we figure out how to form these three circles into some working mechanism? Who knows. It will take mobilization, and it will take compromise. Beyond that, it will take a few hours out of everyone’s copious spare time to pay attention and participate in some way. Write blog posts. Comment thoughtfully on blog posts. Gain WaSP’s attention and get involved. Ask to come to W3C meetings. If we don’t do something soon, I fear the web will become more of a commodity than a gift.

We do not have an interoperable web. What we have is a glut of proprietary, closed, and protected stuff. While it’s sophisticated and interesting sometimes, it goes against the heart of what we came here to build in the first place: an accessible, interoperable web for all.

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