Cambridge, We Have a Problem

September 18, 2006 / Following recent debates about the responsiveness of the W3C to the web design and standards-oriented communities I thought it might be useful to pin down what I see as some of the key claims and offer my own two cents on what it all means.

Following recent debates about the responsiveness of the W3C* to the web design and standards-oriented communities, I thought it might be useful to pin down what I see as some of the key claims, and to offer my own two cents on what it all means.

Tim Berners-Lee: “Weaving the Web: Consortium” (pp. 94, 99)

Membership [of the W3C] was open to any organization: commercial, educational, or governmental, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. The annual fee for full membership was fifty thousand dollars; for affiliate membership it was five thousand dollars. There was no difference in benefits, but to qualify for affiliate status an organization had to be not-for-profit or governmental, or an independent company with revenues of less than fifty million dollars. [...] Like industrial consortia, W3C would represent the power and authority of millions of developers, researchers and users. [...] Whether inspired by free-market desires or humanistic ideals, we all felt that control was the wrong perspective… Philosophically, if the Web was to be a universal resource, it had to be able to grow in an unlimited way… Its being “out of control” was very important.

TBL‘s vision of the W3C has pretty consistently emphasised a market model that puts organisations with an ability to be financially competitive (either as for-profit entities or otherwise) at the helm of the Web’s development. He has been concerned with creating an environment in which the big players can meet on “vendor neutral” terrain.

Jeffrey Zeldman: “An Angry Fix

Beholden to its corporate paymasters who alone can afford membership, the W3C seems increasingly detached from ordinary designers and developers. Truth be told, we and our practical concerns never drove the organization. But after ordinary designers and developers spent nearly a decade selling web standards to browser makers and developing best practices around accessibility and semantics, one hoped the W3C might realize that there was value in occasionally consulting its user base. Alas, the organization appears unconcerned with our needs and uninterested in tapping our experience and insights. It remains a closed, a one-way system. Like old-fashioned pre-cable TV advertising. Not like the web. To be fair, the W3C solicits community feedback before finalizing its recommendations. But asking people to comment on something that is nearly finished is not the same as finding out what they need and soliciting their collaboration from the start.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s post highlights the a rash of defections from key W3C Working Groups and prompted a number of responses from other prominent figures such as Molly Holzschag (rebuttal) and Eric Meyer (rejoinder).

Eric Meyer: “W3C Change: Outreach

Basically, I’m of the opinion that if a WG [Working Group] can’t find someone passionate enough about what they’re doing to be the WGO [Working Group Outreach], then it’s time to ask whether or not they should continue at all. Similarly, if there’s no real community for the WGO to represent, then it’s time to ask why the WG even exists. [...] I will readily grant that many WGs have what are effectively unofficial WGOs; in a lot of ways, you could argue that I’ve been a WGO for years, as have several other people, through books and articles and forum participation and blogging and so on. That’s not enough. There needs to be someone inside the Working Group who is focused on explaining to the world what the WG is doing and who is explaining to the WG what the world is doing, or at least trying to do.

Eric Meyer has followed up on his response to Zeldman and Holzschag with some considered ideas for democratising the W3C’s development process. The universalisation and democratisation of technological resources is a key theme of TBL’s writings (especially Weaving the Web) but I think that the issues outlined here by Zeldman and Meyer strike much closer to the concerns of those “on the ground” (in which group I include the majority of standards-conscious web developers).

David Baron: “More W3C Controversy

I used to think that the W3C should focus on things that are compatible (in terms of architecture, interoperability, and maintenance of existing invariants) with what is already on the Web and designed primarily to improve the Web [...] I’ve now come to believe the opposite. In other words, given the breadth of activity within the W3C, we can no longer assume that all the W3C’s specifications are part of a single plan. Groups within the W3C should be allowed to produce specifications whose features overlap with those of other W3C specifications. No members of the W3C should be obliged to implement any specifications, or criticized for failing to do so simply because the specification they do not implement is a W3C Recommendation. Instead, specifications should compete on their own merits among implementors, authors, and users. [...] We should work on, and implement, the standards that we think are appropriate for Web browsers, and ignore the rest.

David Baron delivers a pragmatic assessment of the W3C today as an organisation whose membership contests a decidedly more fragmented terrain (especially in the divide between standards for Web browsers and mobile devices) than during its heyday.

Tantek Çelik: “Welcome to microformats.org

In the true spirit of the web, microformats are designed for humans first, taking advantage of what works today. Built on existing standards such as XML and XHTML, microformats are a new way of thinking about markup, exposing the visible data that’s already in page content. If you’ve ever pondered the many ways in which to markup an event, a calendar or a business card, then you’ve already understood the importance of microformats. By deciding on “micro” “formats” for valuable chunks of data, we can apply a rich structure that we, as humans, can write, edit, and understand. Microformats are about using the full potential of the web now, rather than throwing away what works and getting people to change they way they work.

Tantek Çelik has lead the way in implementing advice like Baron’s, especially in the area of microformats — a method for imparting semantic markup on structured HTML that enables a greater degree of machine-readability than regular HTML. Çelik calls this the “lower case semantic web” (in contrast to TBL’s more dramatic vision of a fully machine-readable Web). Microformats make HTML more functional by helping to automate many of the tasks for which the web is typically used (e.g. delivering data like contact info, events, reviews, content licenses, resource metadata, and so on). New tools such as Tails and Zotero (both Firefox plugins, not coincidentally) make use of microformats and similar efforts to integrate web function more effortlessly with Desktop function (saving tedious retyping): view a web page and import the calendar event located there with the click of your mouse; view an Amazon book product page and import the citation information into a database, again with a single click.

The crux of the issue is that microformats developed more in spite of the W3C than because of its leadership. The difficult period in which the consortium now finds itself will probably be defined by the fact that the meaning of “democracy” on the web is a lot more contested than TBL once imagined.

* The World Wide Web Consortium is headquartered at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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