Recovered from the Wayback Machine.
After the initial fairly unpleasant comments attached to a weblog I wrote earlier, basically blasting WSP (Web Standards Organization, at http://www.webstandards.org), I’ve had several thoughtful responses from readers leading me to want to respond in kind.
To be honest, I never was that interested in WSP or its initial efforts. I support the concept of web standards, and I’m all for a stable baseline of technology from which to build web content. However, I felt that WSP was late in their formation, as well as late in their effort. In the last three years, WSP generated a lot noise, but I doubt that the group had the positive impact that they believed they had. I still believe, strongly, that the moves towards adopting W3C standards support were based on business practices rather than a set of petitions signed by a group of web designers and web page developers and several press releases. No offense .
As for negative impact…
Thanks to wonderful web services such as the Web Archive’s Wayback Machine and Google’s publication of older usenet postings, I found a thread about a specific WSP open letter to Netscape. You all remember this one? I remembered it, but found it resurfacing when I was poking around the usenet archives. I want to very, very carefully comment on this open letter and what led to it.
Netscape made a gutsy move to take it’s browser to open source through the Mozilla organization. Then, Netscape and Mozilla made a second extremely gutsy move — they decided that to provide the support for the modern standards and web technologies, they would need to scrap Netscape Navigator’s old layout engine and design one from the ground up. And they designed not only a new browser and layout engine, the Mozilla group designed the finest technology architecture for a web user agent I have ever seen. You don’t have to believe me, read the documentation at the Mozilla web site.
Unfortunately, a side effect of these two drastic decisions is that Netscape and Mozilla’s release of a new browser would be seriously delayed.
Rather than we, the web development public, being patient and supportive with both Netscape and Mozilla during these difficult decisions, we slammed them, we issued statements as in the above open letter, and we abandoned them for Internet Explorer (while continue to blast Microsoft for having a monopoly).
Think about it — there was no rush on this. Unless I use the more escoteric elements of CSS1, I’ve rarely had problems with getting my content to work with Navigator 4.x (though I haven’t checked it lately, bad on me). As Zeldman (one of the founders of WSP) proved in his posting this week, the older Netscape 4.x browser could support the XHTML and CSS used at the New York Public LIbrary. So, why the rush?
Still, based on public pressure such as the above, and aided by Netscape’s merger with AOL (tragic that it was), Netscape released a version of it’s browser without waiting for Mozilla to release a first public release of the underlying technology. The company was then promptly blasted because Netscape 6.0 released without total support for ALL standards, and was buggy to boot (though it has improved greatly since the initial release).
Could the Netscape or Mozilla browsers have released earlier? I doubt it, not with the necessity to create the infrastructure to support them. Could both have released without the infrastructure — as just a plain jane browser? Sure, but it wouldn’t have advanced our understanding of what web user agents can do and achieve (a concept that, unfortunately, seems to have been lost in all the standards hub bub). In this case, innovation had to take precedence over standards adherance, because innovation was at the core of the rendering agent responsible for the implementation of the standards. It’s true, this wasn’t the short cut route to delivering a browser; this was the best route, from a technology stand point.
The WSP open letter didn’t help. It really didn’t help. Because of the rush to put Netscape out more quickly, because of the rush to support standards at the cost of innovation (and I think I proved this point with this posting) we have lost an opportunity to truly explore what Netscape/Mozilla represent — a new way of doing things on the web. Not necessarily technology as in “must release a new version every six months”, but a technology built for the future — exploring new concepts, following new challenges.
Couldn’t we have waited a year or two for that? Couldn’t we have used HTML tables for layout just one more year? What would be the harm in waiting? The Mozilla folks (and the Netscape people on the Mozilla project) are working on standards support, but it takes time. And open source projects, unfortunately, usually take more time than commercial ventures. That’s a business fact of life. Couldn’t we have been patient?
End to a story that’s too long for a weblog posting: that’s why my indifference to the WSP became active dislike. Not because I’m against web standards. Not because I’m against XHTML or CSS. It’s because in a brief time in web technology history, we supported conformity over innovation; we supported the comfort and safety of living with the lowest common denominator rather than taking a chance on something bright and edgy and new. And I got pissed.
And I’m still pissed. It’s as simple as that.