Group builds onto wall of Web standards

A slew of proposals for creating and viewing Web pages come shortly after interoperability efforts were challenged by Microsoft's attempt to reject competing browsers.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
5 min read
A key Web standards group is moving quickly to seize the initiative in a seesaw battle over methods for creating and viewing Web pages, following a short but deeply felt crisis late last year.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) closed the calendar year with what it called a record number of drafts and a recommendation targeting technologies from interactive TV to Web authoring tools.

The flurry of protocols, which numbered 27 in the final two weeks of December alone, came shortly after a high-profile standards dustup involving browser compatibility and Microsoft's MSN Web properties. Taken together, the publications outline an increasingly interlocked network of Web standards that promises to be more resistant than ever to the whims of a dominant proprietary software company, consortium watchers said.

"I think the W3C is designing a system that would make it impossible for anyone to hijack the Web--if these standards are followed," said Jeffrey Zeldman, co-founder of the temporarily suspended Web Standards Project (WaSP). "What they're trying to put in place is a world view of different recommendations that work together. They're transformational protocols, document markup protocols, modularization protocols--it seems to me that if these things they're working on are implemented uniformly, it will be much harder to break the Web."

The high concentration of W3C publications caps a year in which the practical business of keeping Web sites browser-agnostic shifted largely from the technical to the political and legal arenas.

Preserving the Web's interoperability--which founders and purists consider the medium's heart and soul--is the W3C's raison d'etre, or reason or justification for existence. The consortium gathers competing Web software providers who recommend mutually acceptable protocols that, if closely followed, allow server and client software to work together no matter who designed it.

An October incident, in which Microsoft's MSN Web sites rejected competing browsers, illustrated just how easily the W3C's member organizations can turn their backs on interoperability.

Microsoft's controversial attempt to require people visiting its sites to use its Internet Explorer browser created enough of a backlash that the company retreated. But had Microsoft succeeded, the reality of Webwide interoperability would have been seriously compromised, embarrassing the W3C with its interoperability mission in the process.

So what good is the W3C if a single member can render its work irrelevant?

"That's like questioning the UN because a powerful nation like America might disregard the organization on a particular issue," said Zeldman. "It exposes a weakness, when you have a very powerful member. But it seems to me that the W3C is addressing that weakness by introducing so many interlocking protocols. They're modular, and many of them come from XML. They're proposing tool sets that can be implemented by anyone, and if they are implemented on a widespread basis, that makes it that much more difficult for anyone, including Microsoft, to own the Web."

Playing nice
Microsoft has long professed its commitment to W3C standards. Standards advocates including WaSP have praised the company for Internet Explorer's recent standards compliance, and Microsoft has based its bet-the-farm .Net strategy largely on W3C recommendations, including the flexible metalanguage XML (Extensible Markup Language) and the XML-based SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) for letting business applications communicate over the Web. XML lets anyone set up standard ways of describing digital documents, such as word processing files, Web pages or diagnostic data.

The W3C acknowledged that its new crop of proposed protocols, like those preceding them, would flourish or languish depending on their support in the real world.

"The W3C works when we get buy-in from the community," said Ian Jacobs, a W3C author. "That means support by members and nonmembers alike, and implementation. If you look at some of our recommendations, some are better implemented than others. Any member can say, 'We're not going to implement it,' and it will die on the vine."

In one sense, the W3C is relying on the goodwill--and good behavior--of its members. When that fails, the company finds itself relying on peer pressure and the persuasive powers of bad public relations.

"There will always be accidents or malfeasance, intentional or not," said Jacobs. "In this particular case (of the MSN shutout), Microsoft corrected it, and the community was correct to have been outraged. The outrage from the community suggests that we are doing something that people consider valuable."

While industry politics and community pressure play out in standards battles, the W3C has taken steps to guide the Web's future with the creation last month of a Technical Architecture Group (TAG) charged with formulating principles behind the Web's architecture and clarifying them when conflicts arise.

W3C members will elect five of the new group's members; W3C founder and director Tim Berners-Lee, who previously shouldered TAG's responsibilities alone, will choose the remaining three. The group meets for the first time Monday.

New release
Among the consortium's December publications:

 Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, also known as "Wombat": As part of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) for making the Web easier to use for people with disabilities, the consortium issued a draft of these new guidelines for designers of Web site authoring tools.

The WAI started four years ago by publishing guidelines for Web site designers. But as more of the Web's pages are designed automatically by authoring tools, the initiative turned its attention to such tools' makers.

The Wombat draft marks the W3C's second attempt to forge guidelines for authoring toolmakers; the consortium recommended the first guidelines, known as ATAG, nearly two years ago. The W3C is soliciting comments on the new draft.

 CSS TV Profile 1.0: The W3C released its first public draft of CSS TV Profile 1.0. Part of the formatting protocol CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), the TV profile is designed for use with interactive TV sets and similar devices.

Interactive TV has failed to live up to most expectations, but industry heavyweights including AOL Time Warner and Cisco Systems are still placing large bets on new ventures associated with the technology.

The W3C is soliciting comments on its CSS TV Profile.

 XSL Transformations (XSLT) version 2.0: XSLT, first recommended in November 1999, is a way of converting one kind of XML document into another. Changes from version 1.0 include error corrections and other updates.

 XQuery 1.0: XQuery is a working draft of a language designed for use with XML documents that returns data to people or agents. XQuery can help locate information in databases, search engines and other documents.

 XPath 2.0: Designed to be embedded in a language, such as XSLT or XQuery, XPath is a language capable of assigning addresses to discrete parts of an XML document.

The first XPath recommendation came out in November 1999. Version 2.0 is derived from that recommendation and from the XQuery working draft, with which XPath shares a closely related syntax.

The full list of the W3C's recent publications can be found here.