[Photo: Toy soldiers]

January 10, 2010

Standards Are Not Just Stuff and Nonsense

[Photo: Toy soldiers]

While HTML5′s generals play with toy soldiers, designers and developers who just want the war to be over, get on with the fight by speaking about, writing about, teaching and using HTML5. Andy Clarke

One thing that all the cutting edge designers and boutique shops keep forgetting is that this wonderful thing we know as the ‘web’ (complete with HTML, CSS, JavaScript and all the newly emerging goodies of HTML5) is also used in the most mundane of ways, on web sites that simply need to communicate information to the end user without being a showcase of CSS mastery, Ajaxian trickery or the cutting edge coding examples of <canvas>, <video>, etc., etc.

No, these organizations are themselves large, lumbering beasts, lacking the agility, flexibility and luxury to push the envelope and explore the fringes. The poor folk who work there instead have to rely on and comply to STANDARDS, not specifications that shift like sand in the desert, but codified, nailed down, no-way-but-this-way STANDARDS. Academia, Governance, heck even large Corporate sites all have to meet Standards requirements to conform to a slew of trivial things like laws, shareholders, marketing and branding, and a whole raft of things that talented and exciting boutiques get to challenge. Work for a government agency? Good luck challenging anything my friend. Heck, in some areas of development ‘webmasters’ are union jobs, complete with scheduled morning and afternoon breaks, an hour for lunch, start at 8, finish at 5. I work for one such large organisation, and I know of what I speak – it might not be as bad as some other locations (and I do get to try out cool new stuff), but I’ve also met and commiserated with others even less fortunate than I more than once.

Yes, it’s sad; I hear you muttering, “I’d never do that, I do art”. Reality check #2 – not everyone gets to be Andy Clarke (or Dave Shea, or Dan Cederholm, Tantek Çelik, Wendy Chisholm, Aaron Gustafson, Jeremy Keith, Ethan Marcotte, Eric Meyer, Nicole Sullivan or Jeffrey Zeldmanthe Superfriends), nope, instead they have J-O-B Jobs, and mortgages, groceries, two kids in high school and a retirement portfolio that is still too weak to allow retirement at age 55. For them, STANDARDS are the tool-set that they must use, and so Standards are important.

Standards are more than just specifications. Standards are translated into numerous languages, printed with actual paper & ink in books (which are sold in shops, stored in libraries and used as teaching materials in schools), combed over by legal folk, management folk, and other stake holders who might not know a CSS child-element from a JSON call, but they do know what ‘broken’ means, and for them, ‘broken’ can sometimes mean big trouble: law suits, lost business, bad press and on and on. There is no room in a STANDARD for “…fix-it-in-the-mix” mentality, for “…we’ll get to that in the next iteration”. Nope, standards are, by necessity, solid as the rock of Gibraltar, and often just as exciting. Specs? They can be exciting, inventive, invigorating and challenging. Specs alone however cannot be Standards, not until they’ve also traveled down the political road of poking and prodding from all the stakeholders, not just the artisans and technologists.

Believe it or not, the W3C is the best collection of people who understand these issues; they have representation from all those other stakeholders, yet those representatives can also speak to the technology that is driving this all, both the tried and true, but also the new and exciting. Other groups, perhaps looser in structure and smaller in size (I’m pointing at you WHAT WG) might appear to be faster, nimbler, and more ‘with it’, but that’s only because they lack the perspective and insights that the larger organization can contribute. As a vocal accessibility advocate, all I need do is point to <canvas>, and last years Bespin experiment – yes, cool, but yet totally inaccessible, because, guess what, the spec never accounted for accessibility; the drafters either forgot, ignored or at best deferred that important part of the puzzle – making that aspect of HTML5 out-of-bounds for anyone mandated to create accessible content; content creators like Government, Academia and increasingly, Big Business. The expertise inside of the W3C however is now working on this boring but critical part of the specification; the original spec authors long since moving on to other experimental bits like (oh, say) Microdata…

Anyway, to you, the edgy young professional who currently has the dream web job, not the mortgage paying J-O-B : take heart, this will work itself out. Saner voices will win the day, HTML5 will be the next Standard, and in 3 years time this will all be a past nightmare, just like the Browser Wars of the late ’90s. But at the same time remember, the W3C is not stalling anything, but rather they are ensuring that all this cool stuff can be used by everyone: end users, cutting edge boutique developers like Mr. Clarke, and our poor beleaguered civil servant, currently on his prescribed 15 minute break in the cafeteria (or out back in the loading dock, grabbing a quick smoke). And think twice about what STANDARDS really mean.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Standards Are Not Just Stuff and Nonsense by John Foliot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Posted by John

I am a 16 year veteran of Web Accessibility, living and working in Austin, Texas. Currently Principal Accessibility Strategist at Deque Systems Inc., I have previously held accessibility related positions at JPMorgan Chase and Stanford University. I am also actively involved with the W3C - the international internet standards body - where I attempt to stir the pot, fight hard for accessibility on the web, and am currently co-chairing a subcommittee on the accessibility of media elements in HTML5.

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