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A Decade Past: Further Evidence of the Importance of Web Standards

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.

Scripting is a great example. Netscape was the first one to introduce JavaScript, causing Internet Explorer to follow suit by creating their own version of the same language (called jScript to get around trademark issues). But they really weren’t the same. The core and the syntax was pretty much identical, but each had functions, methods and properties that did not exist in the other. In some cases, these elements actually did the same things! They just had different names.

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.

Over the course of what could very well prove to be the most important decade in the history of the Web, we have moved from chaotic and entirely unpredictably fragmented landscape and into something far more universal. Yes, there are still variations to deal with and extensive browser testing to be undertaken (especially with the growing popularity of mobile devices). However, the great front-end triumvirate – HTML, CSS and JavaScript – have ultimately provided us with a solid, universal vocabulary through which to create, evolve and expand the Web.

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.

In fact, a few months ago I was getting ready to launch a new site for a client and had set aside an entire evening just to deal with IE issues. I had done all my design and development with Firefox and Safari and saved IE for last (standard procedure for me). I was expecting to take several hours to get everything working and was pleasantly surprised when almost everything rendered perfectly in IE7. I think I just had to make one or two really minor adjustments. Then all it took to get IE6 to play nice was adding some support for PNG transparency and fake my :first-child styles through some JavaScript classiness.

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.

I don’t think that’s the case, though. Standard and mobile browsing are both built around the same core. They both make use primary of standardized HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which makes them far more compatible than Netscape and Internet Explorer used to be. As such, and given what we have considered through the course of this article, I have every confidence that Web Standards will help bridge this apparent gap and keep us moving continuously forward into an increasingly mobile Web.

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Nov 6, 2010

Sari Grove says:

Ok…I’m back…Good article…again…Thoughts? Hum…Thinking back to when record albums got too small to read the lyrics easily…I used to sit & listen to a new record album in my parents’ den while reading the lyrics simultaneously…Stopped doing that when records got small…They called them CDs…Yes, they were compact…But with compactness came cryptic-ness…Just too small to be happily readable…Then I stopped caring about music…I hadn’t read the lyrics & I didn’t know what they were saying…Then, music retaliated for my neglect by becoming so simplistic & repetitive, that any idiot would know what was being said…Then I stopped caring & listening even more…Music became bad & now I had a real reason for not listening or buying…Then music retaliated again by putting out music videos…The musicians started Acting out their lyrics so that people would know what they were saying…This was even cheesier than the repetition…Music then started using bimbos to try to get peoples’ attention…Bimbos are always attention getting was the reasoning…Sex sells or something…That’s when the bottom fell out of music…Music died…Then something happened…The internet came along & at the beginning, you could get music for free…People started listening again…The lyrics were free too & people started reading the lyrics again…Then, independent musicians started posting on Youtube…That was exciting…Some of them were good…They weren’t the same old rock groups we had all heard a thousand times before…Music was born again…
For me, as a visual artist, my disconnect with music began when the lyrics got to be too small to read comfortably…It was a size issue I am sorry to say…(only because that phrase is such an overused euphemistic cliche in nudge nudge wink wink circles…)
When records got smaller, so did our minds…Smaller was not better…For me at least…I have always hated Cds…(actually saying out loud makes me feel good about that statement)…I miss those big black circles that played under the needle around & around…I miss the big pictures on the cover of albums…I miss reading all the lyrics to all the songs, all late afternoon…
When we move from the computer to mobile devices, we will be moving to a smaller screen…I predict much content will be lost…meaning will become meaningless…It will all be too small for people to care…& then, visual art will die…Like music…The internet has been the champion of visual art…On the tiny screen it will become irrelevant…Then it will morph…Rot…Rust…Wither…
Then someone will invent a new media form…Something different…probably bigger again…If you notice your computer screen is the same size roughly as an old record album…Anything smaller tires your eyes…
Music learned its lesson…Art will too…The mobile device will be too small…We will then have to return to a bigger size once again…
What will it be? I’m guessing free form projected images, like a slide projector of old, that doesn’t need a container…So, your mobile device will project onto someone’s office wall what your presentation is…Then they can see it in real size…original intended size…
I saw some swans…trumpeter swans…I fed them at Ashbridge’s bay…I am going to show you a video of those swans…I am going to come to your office with my mobile device & project my video in original swan size of like 3 feet by 4 feet, what those swans looked like…Onto your white white office wall…That is a possible near future…A far future would be that I just telepathically send you those images from my head…Way cheaper than paying server fees & more accurate…
The far future is telepathy…We are almost there now…But I digress…

If I had the capital I would hire you to fix my various websites & blogs…But progress is not always progress, & I fear fixing things to an endpoint of ridiculousness…I subscribe to Garth brooks philosophy…Life is messy…Web standards may be progress, but enabling more may not be in the best interest of content…
The more things there are, the less demand there are for those things…You may have better flow to produce more websites now, but overall, you may be decreasing demand for your product by overproducing & lessening your price per thing…
Web standards, like any other standard, are intended to assembly line production…Which works & makes everyone happy…Until it doesn’t…The tower of babylon…God didn’t want another tall building…The builders wanted a stairway to heaven & they almost got it with web standards…God had to screw up language so people couldn’t communicate with each other…Web standards was wrong…because the ultimate goal was something like wanting to dominate the world…To put themselves above God or something…
Standards work at the beginning of a thing…Increases flow…But beware of the end game of standardization…Assembly lines are the mental prisons of the civilized world…Formulaic thinking is a trap…Don’t forget to rebel when it becomes rote…When it becomes boring…When you start to build a stairway to heaven, that’s when you should put your clog in the machine…Always keep a clog handy for when the machine becomes better than you…

Nov 7, 2010

Mark Handy says:

Great read. After 10 years of dev work, which i never though i’d be doing, i’ve seen it all. From drifference CSS files for Mac or PC, to multi frame sites and 10+ nested tabled.

Good times, i think… lol

Nov 7, 2010

Amber Weinberg says:

This is exactly why I’m such a stickler for validating and following standards. It makes it so easy to get sites working correctly in IE, and I now almost never need to fix a layout for iE.

Nov 8, 2010

Allan Delacruz says:

I think the advent of tools such as Firebug, Web Developer’s Toolbar, and smart editors like Textmate, are just as influential to dev as the standards movement. Extremely increased productivity, however, they don’t keep our minds active on standards. Kinda like Google’s smart searching helps us forget to spell.

Nov 9, 2010

Richard, Leeds says:

I can actually remember IE6 being launched and it being the browser most likely to render your code as expected. Seems a long time ago now!

We certainly have a lot to thank the W3C for.

That said, I’m surprised by how many companies I see still producing non-validating code, as you are right when you say that simply validating it will fix most browser compatibility problems.

Nov 24, 2010

John Peet says:

Great read. I am just starting out and find in difficult now, let alone if there were several different variations of code to create the same piece of work. Must have been so time consuming and off putting to budding developers

Feb 22, 2011

Robin, Sheffield says:

Firefox did, to a large extent, taken the crown from IE, and now I can’t help feeling that Chrome has, in many ways, stolen the crown from Firefox. (It’s certainly the best browser out there for Mac at the moment in terms of speed and CSS support).

Will IE9 take the crown back again from both of them? ;-) I won’t hold my breath.

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