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W3C members: Do as we say, not as we do

A simple study points out that less than 5 percent of the premier Web standards group's own members follow consortium protocols in building their own Web pages.

In a test of whether members of the Web's premier standards group are willing to eat their own dog food, companies and organizations from Microsoft to the United States Environmental Protection Agency were found to be picky eaters.

The second biannual survey, conducted by Helsinki, Finland-based Web designer Marko Karppinen showed that only 21, or 4.6 percent, of 454 member sites Karppinen could access passed the W3C's own HTML validator, which tests for grammatically correct HTML.

The results showed marginal improvement from Karppinen's first survey six months ago, when 3.7 percent of surveyed member sites were shown to have used valid HTML.

Improved or not, Karppinen called the results a stinging indictment of the members' commitment to Web standards.

"The W3C's mission is not only to come up with these standards but also to promote them," Karppinen wrote in an e-mail interview. "The world needs to use them if there is to be any benefit. And it's quite reasonable to assume that this work would start with their own membership. If it has, the results are pretty sad."

Both Karppinen and companies whose sites failed the W3C's validation offered the same reason for the low rate of compliance with published recommendations: Web designers are more concerned with what works with real-world browsers than with standard blueprints.

"Although we fully support work and the mission of the W3C, our goal is not to evangelize W3C standards, but to work closely with Web developers to help their sites work effectively in a cross-browser world," a Netscape representative said. "Netscape.com, along with other highly trafficked sites, needs to ensure that content will be able render properly across a wide variety of browsers, both old and new."

The reality of the real-world design ethos expressed by Netscape, however, has tended to work against it and other Microsoft competitors, because the browser Web authors design against is Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

In many cases, this means that sites are now resorting to the once-common practice of prescribing what browser works best with the site, creating virtual IE-only zones on the Web.

The W3C could not be reached for comment. Microsoft and other member sites declined to comment.

One influential W3C participant, while declining to speak for the consortium, called Netscape's rationalization short-sighted and hazardous for companies that use it.

"I totally agree that it's pretty sad that relatively few of the W3C membership have seen the business benefits of going with standards-compliance," said Tim Bray, chief technology officer and founder of Antarctica Systems and a member of the W3C's 9-month-old Technical Architecture Group. "The time is coming very fast when a substantial proportion of Web users are not coming through Microsoft IE; this includes all the wireless-PDA combo phone devices out there, not to mention the AOL customers who will be using Gecko-based browsers."

One W3C member that did pass the validation test called the overall results disappointing but pointed out a silver lining on the cloud of nonconformance.

"The good news is that people are still using HTML," said Hakon Lie, chief technology officer at Opera Software. "Not in exactly the right way, but it could have been much worse if people had started using some proprietary language like (Adobe Systems') PDF."