Web Standards

After a long hiatus from doing anything creative or constructive  on the web — besides infrequent comments on various blogs — I am going to start playing around with various web pages and code and layout again. And trying to write more stuff in general.

I have been following a number of sites that talk about web page development. Webmonkey is a really nice site, although their blog has slowed down quite a bit since some of their regular contributors had to decamp for real jobs with steady paychecks.

Recently, they posted an article and a link about a very nice program called ExCanvas World Map which uses HTML’s <canvas> tag to produce a world map similar to the world map created by Google Analytics. Like a lot of people, I think Google is becoming the next Microsoft — an industry leader who is an industry leader because they have some great products and have done some amazing things with the technology, but also an industry leader who has become so used to being an industry leader they are now very thin-skinned and sometimes a bit high-handed (I’ve heard the term “badge-heavy” applied to cops who have this personality quirk, but I don’t know an equivalent term for tech companies) — and so I am happy to see alternatives.

(And for future notes for myself, after playing around with the setting I like a background color of 7098cd, a foreground of dddddd, borders of 606060, a border width of 1.5px, padding of 0px, and a highlight color of ffffff.)

Since the canvas tag is a creature of HTML5, I figured it was time I started reading up on HTML5. And what I found was . . . . quite interesting.

The last time I really read about web standards, HTML5 had not even really been proposed yet, and XHTML was being promoted by most of the books I was reading. Another site I follow regularly is A List Apart and Molly E. Holzschlag had an excellent article there in September 2008 about web standards in general with a little bit about XHTML vs. HTML5 in general.

That the article was titled “Web Standards 2008: Three Circles of Hell” should be a clue as to how upbeat she was about web standards. To briefly summarize her article (which is well worth reading in its entirety), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C for short) writes a lot of web standards, but is seen by many in the web community as outdated, glacially slow-moving, and mostly a bunch of ivory tower academics who write in terms best understood by other ivory tower academics. While it is open to individuals as well as company representatives, the cost of traveling to different conferences and keeping up with correspondence is burdensome for individuals who do not have a company sponsorship. But on the other hand, there are things done by the W3C that wouldn’t be accomplished anywhere else, and the web would be a much worse place if there weren’t any standards at all.

But, as the W3C was working on standards for the next phase of the web, a number of web professionals came to the conclusion that W3C was (a) moving much too slow and (b) was focusing too much effort on XHTML and other XML-based standards, while HTML itself was slowly being left behind. Since HTML, an acronym for HyperText Markup Language, was what created most web pages as we know them in the first place (and made something more visually interesting than the usenet e-mail discussion groups, file transfer protocol servers, and the remote terminal sessions that comprised a lot of internet traffic when it was still mostly college students and professors and when most people were still on dial-up and the entire Montana university system probably generated traffic for only one T1 line) many people though it was stupid to let it become obsolete. So groups such as the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), The Web Standards Project (WaSP) and the Web Standards Group (WSG) started focusing on creating a specification for HTML5 (in the case of WHATWG) and drawing public attention to the need for standards-compliant browsers and websites (in the case of WaSP and WSG).

And that was all well and good, and it does look like HTML5 has already accomplished some nice things (as this article at WebMonkey talks about). But then came the announcement in September of last year that HTML5 probably won’t be a fully developed and released standard for another 13 years, or until 2022. Since 13 years in the past was when the internet was still almost entirely the usenet, hyperterminal, and ftp/gopher sessions I alluded to earlier and browsers were something a new company called Netscape had just created for Unix and Linux machine and which Microsoft hadn’t even really considered yet, I think anyone trying to write a standard now for the web which won’t be a mature standard until 2022 is laughable.

Blogger and web professional Jeff Croft said the same thing when that announcement came out, and in much more elegant and authoritative terms than I can manage.

So, where does that leave me with web standards? Personally, I would rather follow a standard than not if I can make it work, and Ethan Marcotte had an article about following web standards in a late February 2007 issue of A List Apart. To paraphrase Ethan, a webpage that works but doesn’t try to follow standards is fine and dandy — as long as it works. But if it runs into problems, it takes twice as long to fix because you have to spend hours figuring out what isn’t broken before you can find where it is broken. Like Roedy Green wrote in his  guide to writing unmaintainable code (comprehensive version, original easier-to-read version), it’s hard to find the off-kilter piece of machinery causing the problem if everything looks off-kilter because it’s all non-standard to start with.

So, in the interest of being somewhat consistent in what I do, I will try to follow web standards whenever possible. While search A List Apart for articles about web standards, I found an article by Craig Cook from January 2007 about grokking web standards. He states that to get web standards, you have to rearrange your thinking and start thinking in terms of structure as much s presentation; it’s like being a writer, an artist, and an enginer all at the same time. Sounds like a bit of a high hurdle, but I’d rather shoot for that than spend the rest of my life than randomly throwing stuff into a .html file in the hopes that maybe this time it will look decent (and not break the instant I try to click on a link).

And on a random note: WordPress updated their interface for blog writers a while back. It was nice before, but now it’s really nice.

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