posted by Matt Ward on Nov 4, 2010.
Today, I think that most of us can agree about the importance of Web Standards for our industry. In this article, I want a personal and very unscientific look at what I think is one more compelling piece of evidence as to why these standards continue to maintain their importance, both today and into the future.
When I first started my “career” in web design and development, I honestly had no idea that it would actually become a career. I was just a teenage kid who was pretty good with computers and who liked to draw and make visual things. The first site I ever remember creating was this truly horrid fan page about David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreaon series (which, incidentally, I have just recently reread). I basically scraped the content from the back of the novels and stole some generic fantasy art that was only vaguely and thematically related to the books.
As far as I can recall, that would probably have been at some point around 1996. Now, here we are in 2010 and I am designing websites for a living (along with logos, and some illustration work). It’s not a path that I really expected to take, but it’s been a fun ride. If you want to know more about it, check out “A Coder’s Journey,” which I wrote several months ago for SpyreStudios.
Anyhow, all of that brings us to the more relevant point that I have had my fingers in the web world for a long time now (probably since before some readers could even really use a computer). However, back when I started with that first fan site, I really knew nothing about the Web and had never even heard of the whole concept of standards.
Realistically, I don’t think many people had. Even the browsers of the time did not seem to be swayed all that strongly by standards and, as Microsoft released Internet Explorer as a competitor to Netscape, the first barrage of the browser wars began. New versions of software were being released almost as quickly as Google Chrome is today, and by the time we got to about 1996/1997, there were a ton of variations of Netscape and IE out there, with each variation offering its own take on the standard features. Those variations even included basic HTML rendering!
There were some things that you could do in Netscape that you simply couldn’t do in Internet Explorer, and vice versa – many of which were probably things that we wouldn’t even dream of doing today, or which we could do with much more elegance.
Oh, and did you know that there was actually something called VBScript too? It could be used in Internet Explorer, and I believe that I did implement it once as part of a browser checking routine.
Regardless, even though I was only peripherally involved in web design at the time, dabbling a bit here and there or working on projects in school, the differences drove me absolutely bonkers. I can only imagine what the true professionals that were working in the field every day were feeling. I knew a few people who started to get into the web design field at the time, but who quickly abandoned the idea because there were just too many variables to contend with when it came to browser compatibility and testing.
Today, one of these people likes to remark “if you could spell HTML back in 1997, you were a web designer”. Actually, based on some of the sub-par sites that I have seen (and that people have paid for), there is probably still some truth to this.
The point is that the writing was on the wall. If this thing we call the Web was going to continue to grow and become truly usable into the future, something was going to have to change. Things were needed to become more universal!
This is where Web Standards played such a significant role.
Now, I’m not here to trace the history of the Web Standards crusade. I should probably know more about that history, and will make a point of trying to learn about it over time, but I’m certainly not well-versed enough to be able to provide a comprehensive or accurate picture of how the standards movement has progressed. What I do know, however, is that I have certainly seen the incredible impact of that movement.
The real beauty of it all is that, even as the languages and technologies that we are using continue to grow and expand, the actual act of designing and developing is becoming easier because clients (or browsers) are actually becoming increasingly consistent in the way they render things. About 90% of the time, if something looks right in Firefox, it will also look right in Safari and Chrome (both built on Webkit). Generally speaking it will also look right in most recent versions of Opera, though that particular browser does tend to be somewhat less forgiving (many strange behaviours in Opera can be remedied by simply validating your code!).
Of course, Internet Explorer does still tend to be the odd one out, especially if we have to support IE6 for whatever reason, but I’ve even found that the more standards compliant I make my code (which includes using strict modes), the less work I actually have to do trying to fix all the weird IE rendering problems that seem to crop up.
Then I was done. It took less than an hour of work and freed up the rest of my evening!
When it comes right down to it, I can thank the Web Standards movement for the extra time I got out of that night, and even for preventing the need for even more hours spent fixing the many other theoretical rendering issues that would certainly have been plaguing us if it wasn’t for the direction and the guidance of these standards over the past decade or so!
While there is certainly much, much more that can be written about Web Standards, I view all of what we have looked at in this article as further evidence to support the need for standards. Even more importantly, it gives me a greater sense of hope for the future. With the increasing popularity of mobile devices, it can be easy to feel as though we are moving towards a situation similar to the browser wars of the mid-to-late nineties, seemingly designing for two different incompatible media. Back then it was Netscape and Internet Explorer; today it may seem to be the computer and the mobile device.
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