Network: Web Design - The battle for industry standards is joined

George Olsen is leading the fight to get browser makers to play by the rules
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IF I HAD a pound for every hour of extra development time it took me to make sure my clients' web sites ran on the various versions of Internet Explorer and Navigator, I would be much poorer than I am today. You see, I actually get more than a pound - a lot more - for every hour I spend doing just that.

Creating sites for the multitude of browsers on the market is like the weather, everybody complains but no one does anything about it.

That is until George Olsen and some of his buddies, including some of the top names in the industry, started the Web Standards Project (http://www.webstandards .org), an independent organisation devoted to the ideal that all browsers should adhere to one set of standards. George is a Web architect at 2- Lane Media (http://www, where he has experienced the terrors of cross-browser coding first-hand.

Jason Cranford Teague How did the Web Standards Project get started?

George Olsen When Internet Explorer 5.0 beta came out in mid-June it still lacked full support for Cascading Style Sheets-1, which has been a [World Wide Web Consortium] specification since December 1996. Yet Microsoft was adding new features. Likewise, Netscape was adding bells and whistles to Netscape 4.5 but admitted they were not sure they'd have full support for CSS-1 in 5.0.

Glenn Davis [of Project Cool] raised this issue on a mailing list and I decided I was "mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore". So I e-mailed Glenn and about two-dozen other developers, saying it was time to do something rather than just complain about it. And I discovered they were equally frustrated.

Since the WSP went public, the response has been enormous. We've touched a raw nerve among developers and their clients.

JCT Why is it so important that browsers handle HTML, JavaScript, and other technologies in the same way?

GO For developers it's frustrating to waste time working around incompatibilities when we could be spending that time making better content for those sites. For people who are paying for sites, incompatibilities are costing them money.

And for people using the Web, incompatibilities mean running into pages that won't display or work on their particular browser if the developer didn't know enough or wasn't careful enough to do all the necessary workarounds.

It's also worth mentioning that both companies are part of the World Wide Web Consortium and had a hand in developing the standards, so we think it is reasonable for them to incorporate them into their browsers.

JCT Doesn't this subvert competition and innovation?

GO Supporting standards is not about spanking vendors for introducing new innovations. There's nothing wrong with innovation - just with failing to support existing standards.

JCT What do you make of the Opera browser, which pitches itself as a browser that adheres strictly to the standards?

GO While no browser currently offers full support for current W3C standards, Opera has done a good job of paying attention to the issue and Opera endorsed WSP's efforts shortly after our launch.

Opera does claim to support HTML 3.2, which I haven't verified myself, but it's still not fully supporting CSS-1. I'm told that their current private beta has good support for these, however, I haven't seen the beta myself.

JCT What is the WSP doing to encourage browser manufacturers to adhere to the standards?

GO We've been talking with representatives from Microsoft, Netscape and other browser makers who are interested in working with us on the issue. WSP has set up several groups to detail the specific problems that currently exist in CSS-1, Document Object Model [DOM], XML and other areas, and push for getting these resolved.

WSP is also encouraging developers and programmers to help with Netscape's effort to debug their NGLayout Engine, which is intended to make their browser 100 per cent compliant with CSS-1 and DOM - and which may or may not make it into Navigator 5.0.

We plan to continue building awareness about the issue and keep up the public pressure.

JCT Do you see the 5.0 browsers (Navigator and IE) embracing the standards being set down today?

GO It's our hope that browser makers will realise that it's in their mutual self-interest to have full support for Cascading Style Sheets-1, DOM and XML. Otherwise, developers will probably shun them - just as they do today - because few clients are willing to pay for building multiple versions of a site.

JCT What other problems will we encounter?

GO The incompatibility problem will only increase as browsers move beyond the desktop into televisions, PDAs, and devices we haven't even thought of yet. The W3C specs open up the possibility of being able to develop a site once that would be able to be used on all of these devices. But with the current patchwork support for standards it's not really possible to do right now. So far, we've certainly gotten Microsoft's and Netscape's attention and they both say they're committed to supporting standards. We're now watching to see if their deeds match their words.

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