Web standards, browsers, and the future of the web

December 19, 2007

Recently, the CSS working group and the W3C in general have come under fire as Opera launches an assault on Microsoft. A counterculture of pro-proprietary technology advocates has risen up against the web standards movement. The web standards crowd has responded with fire and passion, sending up a rallying cry against what they see as a return to the browser wars of the ‘90s.

All of this begs the question - what are we really trying to do with web standards and the Web in general? James Bennett asks the same question, though more eloquently and with greater background than I present here. The point of the World Wide Web is to provide people with information. It used to be nothing more spectacular than that. The type of information varied - marketing, scientific studies, news, etc. - but it was all information.

With the advent of RIA technologies and new usage of the Web, though, that's starting to change. People are starting to do more than just research and purchase on the Web. The lines between desktop applications and web pages are blurring. With AIR, Flex, JavaFX, Silverlight, and other possible vehicles for innovative usage of the Web proliferating like mad, we are left with the question - what can't we do with the Web? That question is what drives research and innovation in the Web. It doesn't play as much of a factor, though, in industrial and commercial common usage. For example, when was the last time you overheard any non-developer talking about Web 2.0 or rich internet applications? How many people actually know about and use Google Docs? I'd be willing to wager that not many outside our world do.

That will change in the future, of course, as clever and useful new technologies frequently are wont to be adopted. However, it seems that we - that is, web developers and other Internet professionals - often confuse research with production. The development of other new technologies, such as integrated graphene circuits, is kept largely out of the public eye. While not expressly hidden, there is no attempt made to put such bleeding-edge breakthroughs into immediate public usage. Web standards and the development of proprietary Web technology is slightly different, but not much. Web standards are supposedly akin to such things as the Railway Group Standards in that they make the Web easier and “safer” to use and develop for. By taking away the difficulties inherent in producing for multiple different platforms, web standards allow developers to spend their time innovating in more specific ways.

The problem is that web standards are not keeping up with technological development, and so developers on the cutting edge are not able to utilize new technologies without resorting to proprietary platforms. Many developers give up on web standards so that they can implement the latest and greatest products of the commercial or open source worlds. I personally would love to see XHTML taken beyond its HTML4.01 roots; the WHATWG tends to agree with me on this. However, with the current leadership of web standards, that simply isn't possible. We need new standards. The W3C is not keeping up with the pace of development, and therefore should either be revamped or replaced.