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A Web gadfly makes his mark

Jeffrey Zeldman, who pushed Microsoft and Netscape to adhere more closely to industry standards during the days of the browser wars, reflects on the changing balance of power in the evolution of the Internet.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
10 min read
Editor's note: As the United States marks the 10th anniversary of its first Web page, CNET News.com is publishing a series of interviews examining the changes wrought by this breakthrough invention's past--and its future.

Seven years after the first American Web site launched, Jeffrey Zeldman and a group of fellow Web developers decided that Microsoft and Netscape were fragmenting the Web into proprietary fiefdoms, with the side effect of forcing developers to code duplicate versions of their sites for a metastasizing population of incompatible browsers.

Fed up, Zeldman and his colleagues formed the Web Standards Project, which on Thursday announced an indefinite hiatus after more than three years of serving as the standards community's premier gadfly.

Armed with its giant wasp mascot, the group inserted itself as an influential player in the browser war, prevailing on Netscape, Microsoft, and smaller browser makers to adhere more closely to standards ratified by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and to abandon projects the group saw as tangential to the mission of creating a genuinely interoperable world of Web sites and Web browsers.

Under Zeldman's leadership, the group shifted its focus from browser makers to the other side of the Web standards equation--the developers and authoring tools responsible for the morass of nonstandard code found on the Web today.

Zeldman, born in New York City in 1955, studied music, film and English at Indiana University before earning a master's degree from the University of Virginia. He worked in music composition, journalism and advertising until 1995, when the Web began taking over his professional life. He is the author of Taking Your Talent to the Web, a book for print designers learning to work online.

Zeldman spoke to CNET News.com about the importance and politics of standards compliance, the impact his group has had, and the future of an interoperable Web.

Q: This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Web in the United States. How did American values, specifically corporate values, affect the struggle over Web standards? Would the battle have played out differently, for example, if the Web had its growth spurt in its native Switzerland?
A: Well, if the Web had its growth spurt in Switzerland, internationalization issues would have been handled more quickly and more efficiently--but the Web might have grown more slowly, because America is a commercial nation, quick to capitalize--if you'll excuse the pun--on the fast and the new.

American corporate values built a robust infrastructure more quickly than might have happened elsewhere. American companies hyped and commercialized the Web in TV commercials and films and made it "user friendly" through services like America Online which, whatever else you can say about such services, certainly helped hasten public acceptance of the new medium. When your barber starts talking about the Internet without prompting from you, you realize how quickly--almost faddishly-the phenomenon of the Web has caught on. That may be an American thing.

In the late 1990s, American companies also dumped fortunes in fancy Web sites with tremendous interactive and visual appeal, which again helped make the Web seem exciting to the public, in ways that online physics papers were not.

I think we will see a more and more international Web--and also perhaps a more <I>thoughtful</I> one. All that said, the Web is for all humanity, and tremendous design and programming work is being done outside the United States. I think we will see a more and more international Web--and also perhaps a more thoughtful one, as acceptance spreads across the world and as the "get rich quick" folks who didn't get rich quick exit the field.

Standards advocates like you have often pointed to the fact that the Web began as a very basic, open platform. What went wrong?
Nothing really went wrong--everything happens for a reason. In the mid-90s, it became obvious to agencies, artists, business owners and institutions that the Web had tremendous creative, personal, and business potential. But Web display was primitive, functionality almost nonexistent aside from Perl.

Clients wanted Web presences fast. Agencies rose up to create those presences. Robust standards were not yet in place. So browser makers made up tags, while Web designers figured out ways to hack them.

The commercial success of that approach had its own momentum. By the time standards were in place--such as CSS in 1996--developers and browser makers alike largely ignored them in favor of proprietary innovations. That, I suppose, is what went wrong. But we were all moving so quickly it was hard to see exactly what we were moving toward, which was a Balkanized future of incompatible sites, browsers and technologies.

How did the Web Standards Project get started and by whom?
In 1998, after the release of the wildly incompatible 4.0 browsers, independent developers Glenn Davis and George Olsen asked me and others in the community what we could do to stop the madness. Together, we came up with a name, a basic site design, and a single-minded platform demanding that W3C recommendations--which we called "Web standards"--be adequately supported in all browsers before individual browser makers innovated proprietary technologies.

What did you do? What were your biggest successes?
We wrote petitions and sent them to the appropriate folks. We spoke to our peers at Web conferences. We wrote editorials on our site and articles on other sites and in magazines. We issued statements--some of which got picked up by news organizations like CNET. We participated in open beta tests like the Mozilla project and wormed our way into closed beta tests such as the development of new versions of Internet Explorer. We yelled. We whined. We pleaded. We made nuisances of ourselves. We used the power of the Internet itself to disseminate our message.

And what was the end result?
Our success--and it's huge--is that we helped persuade both Netscape and Microsoft to embrace the W3C recommendations they themselves had a hand in creating and to fully support standards like CSS, HTML and XHTML in their browsers--along with increasing support for the W3C DOM and XML.

Would the browser makers have done this anyway?
Eventually, they surely would have had to--and Opera Software, the smaller competitor to the two Big Browsers, was always committed to doing so. Engineers at all these companies were in favor of supporting standards. They needed ammunition. They needed to be able to tell their management that "the public wants this now, not two years from now." We gave them that ammunition. That's why I say we "helped persuade" the browser makers to do the right thing. I think eventually they would have done so anyway. But the longer they delayed, the worse the Web would have been fragmented.

Critics of the standards process say it can't keep up with the pace of innovation, that technology can only move forward by exceeding standard protocols. Is there any truth to this?
In a general sense, perhaps. But right now, I would say that W3C recommendations are way ahead of what browsers can realistically deliver. The W3C is working on CSS-3, DOM Level 2, and so on. It will be a long time before browsers can support these technologies.

Another criticism is that the standards bodies, particularly the W3C, become rubber stamps for the technological wishes of their largest and most influential members, against which standards are supposed to provide some sort of bulwark for smaller players. Do you agree?
Well, I'm not a W3C member, so I can't say what kind of politics may or may not go on in some of their meetings. It stands to reason that if a company like IBM (a W3C member) really wants something from W3C--such as a patent policy that favors big companies over open-source developers--there will certainly be pressure on W3C to respond to that. How they respond is up to them. It's a tough position to be in, and like any group they are capable of taking the occasional misstep. But I think they've done an incredible job so far, and I'm hopeful that the patent policy they eventually come up with will be fair to all, in spite of any pressures that may be felt from powerful members.

How do you think the W3C and Tim Berners-Lee have responded to the pressures exerted by the marketplace and specifically the rivalry between Microsoft and Netscape?
I think they've done a brilliant job of ignoring the rivalry between Netscape and Microsoft and getting both companies--and other powerful companies--to sit down at committee tables and iron out common standards.

Netscape came out with what just about everyone agreed was a substandard browser this year with the Netscape 6.0 release. Some people sympathized with the claim that part of the reason was the extraordinary pressure your group and other like-minded individuals put on Netscape to produce a standards-compliant browser as soon as possible. Is that fair?
First, I think the 6.2 release is very good. Most of the bad press is in response to the 6.0 release, which was subpar. After downloading that beast, some folks gave up on Netscape. I think that is a mistake--but perhaps it was also a mistake to release that browser before it was truly ready.

Our success--and it's huge--is that we helped persuade both Netscape and Microsoft to embrace the W3C recommendations they themselves had a hand in creating. Second, in 1999 we were told the open-source Mozilla group had a standards-compliant rendering engine waiting in the wings. We were also told that Netscape did not plan to incorporate that standards-compliant rendering engine in its upcoming browser, then called "Netscape 5." Well, the old rendering engine in Netscape 0.1 through Netscape 4.7 is a code tumor. WaSP urged Netscape to throw it out and use instead the standards-compliant rendering engine already developed.

When Netscape agreed to do so, we all figured it would take about a year to come up with a lean, standards-oriented Mozilla-Netscape browser, since the rendering engine already existed. We did not count on its taking as long as it took. Mozilla is still below 1.0--it's at version 0.96 as of this interview--which means Netscape's browser is still based on a beta. In spite of which, it does a very good job in many areas of its standards compliance.

Why did it take so long? Did they add too many features instead of focusing on delivering simply a standards-compliant browser, as WaSP had urged? Did they have trouble managing a huge open-source project?
I don't know. I'm not going to second-guess someone else's project management techniques or software development hurdles. It's unfortunate that it took as long as it did and that Netscape lost so much market share in the process. We commend them for sticking to their guns where standards compliance is concerned.

Netscape began losing market share long before WaSP urged them to give us a new browser. Some of that was in response to Microsoft's marketing tactics. Some was in response to the perception that with IE4 Microsoft had actually--for the first time--delivered a better browser than Netscape's. Had Netscape delivered a solid 5.0 browser around the same time IE5 came out, history might be different. But history is history.

How have the open-source movement--with particular reference to Netscape's Mozilla organization--and the open standards movement intersected, helped and/or hurt each other?
Well, we've already talked about Mozilla. Keep in mind, open source and open standards are two different things. The W3C recommendations that we call "Web standards" are created in a collaborative environment, but it's mainly big companies and invited experts who do the collaborating. CSS-1 did not go out to the world, get hacked by open-source geniuses, and result in CSS-2. The process is controlled by W3C.

It's an "open" recommendation in the sense that it is available for implementation by any browser maker--hopefully without patent encumbrance--but it ain't Linux.

Many in your group and elsewhere have lauded Microsoft for sticking closely to W3C standards in recent releases. Why is it in their best interest to do so? If AOL throws in the towel on browsers, do you expect to see continued good citizenship from Microsoft?
Microsoft has stuck closely to many W3C standards in recent releases. In part, I think this is what their engineers want. After all, several of them participate in the creation of these standards at W3C. In part, as the current market leader, Microsoft has nothing to lose by supporting these standards and gains considerably in perceptual value by doing so--as I'm sure their corporate P.R. folks are well aware.

I don't know that AOL is throwing in the towel. I don't know that Opera can't continue to gain market share or that--unlikely as it seems--some alternative browser could one day become a player. It seems likely, of course, that Microsoft will continue to dominate this market, regardless of how its competitors fare. I would hope that in such a case, they continue to exercise good citizenship. Just as many people expect good world citizenship from the United States. It is the curse of the large and powerful that they are expected to behave well. It would make sense for Microsoft to continue to do so.

After the browser fight, your group moved on to authoring tools from companies like Macromedia and Adobe. Why? Did you accomplish anything there?
Those of us who've met with Macromedia are satisfied that the next version of Dreamweaver will be considerably enhanced with regard to Web standards. I can't say more about that. We haven't yet been able to hold a meeting with Adobe regarding GoLive. I don't really know Adobe's plans for their authoring tool. At present, and for the foreseeable future, Dreamweaver is the market leader, so if they become far more compliant in their next version, well, that will be more impetus for Adobe to follow suit--if it isn't already planning to somehow trump Macromedia and get more compliant first.

Why disband now? Aren't Web standards more important than ever?
Well, we're not disbanding. We're taking a short break of sorts, chiefly in acknowledgement of two things. One: To a great extent, the browser makers have complied with the demands spelled out in our mission statement of 1998--thus some of our reason for being has gone away. Two: Much work remains to be done, particularly in the field of education--developer and client. But at this moment, we do not have the internal resources to do all the work that is necessary.

If that changes in the next few months, we will come back strong. If not, then we will speak from time to time from our WaSP pulpit--and individual members will continue to act as standards evangelists inside or outside the WaSP. The Web Standards Project is not magic. The standards developed by W3C, if seized upon as a resource by the design and development community, could make an almost magical difference in the way the Web works.