Standards and the
Future of the Web
By Jonathon L. Duckworth
Director of Technical Services, Firefly LLC
November 2, 2004
Web design and development is on the cusp of a sea change. The techniques of the late 1990s are no longer adequate for the demands of the modern web, let alone the future web. This document seeks to explain this in greater detail.
Why do I care about web standards?
Building sites using web standards is a deviation from the techniques that have developed over the last ten years. It is becoming more popular due to several things:
The old way is more expensive. There are two aspects to this issue: a technological aspect and a legal aspect.
Web standards make pages weigh less. Using CSS for layout instead of table can save between 13 and 15 KiB per page. Indeed, some pages may have been mostly table and weigh almost nothing after conversion. Smaller page weight means money saved, as every byte of bandwidth costs. One designer's estimate  is that Microsoft would save 924 GiB per year in bandwidth. That means they are wasting almost 185 DVDs-worth of bandwidth every single day.
The legal system is currently determining the requirements for web sites with respect to people with disabilities. In August of 2004, Priceline.com and Ramada.com settled a lawsuit brought by the state of New York for tens of thousands of dollars and agreed to redesign their sites to be accessible to blind and sightimpaired users. New York used the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and various state rules as the basis for their case. Using web standards means accessibility is simple.
Using web standards allows you to provide every client or customer that comes to your site with content. This is a simple matter of accepting all the business you can. Would you point at every tenth customer to enter your place of business and tell them they were not welcome? Then you shouldn't do it on the web, either.
Using web standards means sites are built faster and can be rebuilt easily. Since the sites are coded to a standard, there is less time fixing conformance problems. In fact, it is possible, using CSS and the technique of separating presentation and content, to control the appearance of an entire web site from a small set of files -if one's branding changes, one's web site can be updated quickly and at much reduced cost compared to fixing every page.
Standards open the door to the semantic web. This is a much less concrete point: it is concerned with the future of the web. The semantic web is concerned with meaning rather than appearance. Web standards allow one to define the meaning of content, thus making that content easier to find. If people cannot find your content, they cannot buy your services. Sites that use web standards will be ready for the future of the web.
What are web standards?
In the beginning, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) wanted to avoid stepping on people's toes and termed all their work "recommendations"—even though what they were putting out were standards. Some are universally adopted: one would be hard-pressed to find a web browser (termed a user agent) that doesn't support the HTML 3.2 recommendation. Others have been sadly neglected until recently. What follows is an overview of the various web standards; feel free to skim.
The most important-and successful-standard is the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). XML has been widely adopted for various uses; HTML has been reformulated in XML as XHTML. Using modern browsers allows the full power of XML, such as using more than one markup language in a single document (for example, using MathML to mark up one's math equations and XHTML for the text).
The first specification for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) came out in 1996 but it was not until Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6.0 in 2001 that the majority of users had a solid implementation of it. CSS is a standard for the presentation of content: one can control positioning, typography, color, and visibility through it.
Who comes up with these standards?
For the first ten years of the web, the most important standards body was the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has as its mission "to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential." All of the above standards, except ECMA-262, have come from the W3C. Other important sources of standards-including some familiar to other industries-are:
Ecma International, formerly the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA)
the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
the Unicode Consortium
Won't web standards make my site boring or ugly?
No. Web standards allow for same kind of creativity and beauty as traditional techniques. It is important that this question is asked and answered, because successful businesses recognize that 1) people judge a company based on first impressions, and 2) increasingly, first impressions are based upon a firm's web site. The beauty of a site is a function of its designers, not its technologies. If nothing else, traditional techniques have shown that wonderful, exciting web sites can be built using technologies not meant for such use. These days, the standards for such use are widely deployed and supported. In concert with the points in the first question, it should be clear that there is no reason to continue using old techniques to build web sites.
What do web standards not handle well?
Work on standards is always continuing; however, some aspects of modern web sites-such as animation and interactivity-are not wellhandled by standards yet. For instance, building web applications using standards requires what is termed a "page refresh," where the user agent must download the results of choices made by the user. Emerging standards like Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) combined with existing standards like Ecmascript will eventually handle these problems, but today, the solution to this problem is Flash. Macromedia's Flash product is available for almost every platform, but the are some downsides:
Flash is proprietary and thus development is subject to the whims of Macromedia, as is the legal use of the software.
Flash is primarily concerned with visual presentation at the expense of other methods of presentation.
Flash is a big black hole of inaccessible content to those without the Flash plugin-that is, those who don't understand Flash.
Recently, Macromedia has made strides to make Flash accessible to people with disabilities, but current support is suboptimal and tied to Microsoft Windows. Thus it is important to limit the use of Flash to only those things that current web standards are unable to handle, and to use Flash for only the visual presentation of content that requires it.
The future of the web is dependent on web standards. All sites will need to be built with them, but the benefit of standards is that such sites are future-proofed: it is always clear how to interpret data that is standards-based. Today, some presentation must be done in Flash, but if done by developers that understand web standards, it will be easy to replace Flash with the appropriate standard when it is available. When considering designing or redesigning a web site, make sure the people with whom you work understand this and design with these issues in mind.