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Jeffrey Zeldman on the dream of a standards-based web

The father of web standards fondly remembers The Web Standards Project and how it revolutionised the industry

Remember that episode of the IT Crowd (Season 3, ‘The Speech’) where Jen breaks the internet and everyone runs screaming from the room? Under all the hilarious layers of silliness, there's a truth: we live in a new and still emerging world made possible by the internet. If it disappeared tomorrow, all our systems would collapse. The core of that internet — the place where most people interact with it throughout their day — is the web, and the web is built of powerful HTML and other strong, open standards.

We may never have gotten here without The Web Standards Project and the thousands of developers, designers and strategists who supported it by: signing petitions; making browsers in the early days; evangelising separation of content, appearance and behaviour inside their organisations; or in the dozens of other ways so many people patiently worked to make this happen.

In the 1990s, the web moved faster than reason (as often happens when people start making lots of money) and was hurtling toward total fragmentation.

It was considered rational back then to spend your time and resources making multiple versions of your website for different browsers instead of using standards and spending your time and resources on content, design, usability, creativity and innovation. Later, it was considered rational to create something that worked only in one browser or operating system (the popular one of the time) and to tell anyone who wanted access to your content or products to use that browser and operating system or go fuck themselves.

And it wasn't just delusional small business folk with limited budgets who thought that way. Huge multinational corporations spent fortunes creating sites and applications that were partially or completely inaccessible to anyone unlucky enough to be stuck with the ‘wrong’ browser or operating system. There were accessibility problems inherent in this approach, too.

Still later, many of these same companies and organisations abandoned HTML altogether in favour of the nifty but proprietary Flash platform, which had accessibility and interoperability problems of its own. (Macromedia and later Adobe worked hard to build accessibility and interoperability into Flash, but it took a sophisticated and committed designer/developer to make it work, and many professionals and the people they reported to neither knew nor cared. The idea that the web was for all people wasn't even in most folks' minds.)

From the time when no browser maker correctly or completely supported even HTML, let alone CSS and standard JavaScript, through the long years when browser makers were finally doing the right thing but designers, developers and their clients didn't know how to make use of standards (and didn't care), The Web Standards Project toiled on, sometimes aggressively, but mainly quietly, through many one-on-one conversations. I'm proud of that persistence, and delighted that it paid off. And I am thrilled that The Web Standards Project's almost insane mission (to get us to a world where browsers and devices support open standards, and nearly all designers and developers use them correctly to make web content and experience accessible to all) has finally succeeded.

By my lights, it succeeded around 2003, or maybe 2005. I was surprised that The Web Standards Project kept going as long as it did. From the outside, it sometimes seemed that nothing much was happening at The WaSP. But then again, this coincided with the period where IE6 stayed on the market for five or six years with no real changes, so it may have seemed like standards had been taken as far as they could be. From the outside, the persistence of webstandards.org was like the persistence of Dixieland music — a pleasant but fairly irrelevant reminder of the past!

Toward the end, over the past few years, I know there was some good educational work going on inside WaSP, although it wasn't always wildly apparent to the outside world, and I think many people's attention had moved on to other problems, such as multi-device design, which of course ironically recapitulates the whole standards struggle. (And standards are the answer in multi-device design as well. It's just that the standards that fully address some of the concerns of multi-device design are still evolving, like the devices—again, a perfect echo of the standards struggle during the years of the browser wars and Flash.) Once that educational piece got handed off to the W3C (finally!), it made sense for The WaSP to close up shop. And now they have.

A tip of the blue beanie to each and every person who helped make the dream of a standards-based web come true.

Jeffrey Zeldman co-founded The Web Standards Project and is currently chairman of Happy Cog. Photography: Tony Quartarolo.

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