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Archive for March 2nd, 2006

Whose standards?

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Occasionally during public discussions about web standards, particularly standards compliance in web browsers, someone comes out of the crowd and asks these two questions: “What good is a web standard if no browser has perfect support for it?” and “Why is a W3C standard any better than a Microsoft standard?”

The second question has an easy answer: even Microsoft is dumping their “standards”. Internet Explorer Group Program Manager Chris Wilson stated in an official blog post, “I want to be clear that our intent is to build a platform that fully complies with the appropriate web standards, in particular CSS 2 ( 2.1, once it’s been Recommended).”. The web development community generally agrees that the models endorsed by the W3C are easier to work with, more flexible, more intuitive, and simply make more sense than Internet Explorer’s implementations. Other browsers have been aiming at W3C standards compliance for quite some time now, and the Internet Explorer development team has made it clear that they aim to follow standards more rigorously in future versions, even when it means breaking websites that rely on Internet Explorer quirks, as we have seen in the big commotion regarding the widely-used * html hack.

It’s true that Microsoft has made some positive contributions to web technology. Some contributions have made it into W3C standards, some have not. When it comes to a battle between an Internet Explorer implementation and a W3C-endorsed web standard, the rest of the browsers and web development community typically flock to the W3C standard. Why? Because we are aware of the great mess that came from the browser wars between Netscape and Internet Explorer, when standards were all but thrown aside and each browser went its own way. It became a tremendous struggle for web developers to get something working across all major browsers. Standards ensure that there is common ground for future development. Considering that all browser developers now aim to follow this one source of rules — rules that are largely the product of discussion and agreement among these browser developers — we as web developers know that these are the rules we can expect will hold up in the future.

This leads to the answer to the first question. Standards are important even if a particular standard isn’t yet well-supported. When no major browsers support a standard, it usually equates to lack of interest. But when interest does spark up, web developers and browser developers can know exactly where to go, since the tracks are already laid out. Standards are more about the future than anything else, and as time goes on they will help to keep our technology models clean, organized, and progressively easier to utilize in a widely compatible way.