The Web Standards Snowball

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The correct version would work in Internet Explorer, but in Netscape Navigator, there would be a large gap between the form and the element above it.

Let me try to paint a picture of a web moving in multiple directions.  To get there though, we need to discuss some other ideas first.

First, let’s just toss the idea that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was made for the internet, and the world wide web.  It wasn’t.  Microsoft saw the audience for its web browser as the large corporations who paid them large dollar amounts for what was now considered industry standard software. Internet Explorer could have been named Intranet Explorer, as Intranets were Microsoft’s focus. The larger audience of just us poor schmucks on the street was really little more than a side effect.  The corporations’ employees had to also view that World Wide Web, so Microsoft had to have a large degree of compatibility with the greater world while adding features corporations wanted. 

How do I know this was Microsoft’s view of their target audience?  They told me when I visited their offices to discuss standards support in their browsers.

Netscape, wasn’t trying very hard either.  Netscape wanted the corporate browser market, but seemed to be resting on its laurels when it came to standards support.  Both companies were going different directions.  Netscape was never going to be able to wrest the corporate market from Microsoft, but they were trying.

Let’s take a step back and look at what standards are before we go further.

The text you are reading right now was transmitted to you as a series of numbers that both ends agreed to.  That’s one of the most basic standards for the exchange of information, the characters that make up our language.  But if one side was speaking ASCII and the other only understood EBCDIC, then neither could speak to the other.  

If we step outside of the domain of computers, we can look around and see that we live in a world of standards.  There are standard battery sizes, tools, parts, etc.  If the world had no standards, it would be a nightmare.  Nightmare was what the web was poised to become.

The web was built on hacks in those days to allow the pages to look close to the same on the major and minor browsers.  Don’t think Microsoft and Netscape where the only browsers out there, they were just the best known because the one came with your operating system and the other was recommended on buttons as a ‘best viewed with’ choice for viewing many of the websites you’d visit.  Their browser also tended to push the edges of our control a bit further.

If you are wondering what a hack would look like, I’ll show you one of mine, I’ll just simplify the code a bit.

We were at a standards debate in San Francisco with reps from Microsoft and Netscape on a panel.  I was one of the panel members and about to miss an opportunity.

Microsoft’s presentation included slides of some of standards advocates’ pages pointing out where we, the people clamoring for web standards, weren’t always writing to them.  They had a slide of my Developer Zone page and at that moment I couldn’t think of what wouldn’t comply, so I laughed it off by saying I’d never claimed to be anything but a hack, or something to that effect.

Microsoft’s reps seemed to want to try to embarrass us, but always seemed to miss the point.

When I got home, I pulled up that page and viewed the source so I could look at the code, and then I remembered.

So this is a simplification of how the code should have looked, in pseudocode:


Here’s what the code actually looked like, an intentional nesting error hack:


The correct version would work in Internet Explorer, but in Netscape Navigator, there would be a large gap between the form and the element above it.  My little hack though, caused the page to render correctly in both browsers.  It was one of those hacks you needed because the browsers weren’t supporting standards.

I wish I would have remembered that on stage, and once I got back and looked at the code I should have documented what happened and explain why this is one of those issues caused by poor standards support.  I dropped the ball and forgot about it.

So now that I hope you have some idea why having browsers support web standards was something that needed to happen, let me tell you how the snowball started.

I was living and working in Palo Alto. There was a San Francisco email discussion list called NoEnd.  It was primarily web designers and developers with a few web centric journalists and a few people from further away.  I can’t recall how I learned of the list, but I seem to remember having to ask for access.

NoEnd was probably the best discussion list I ever belonged to.  Lots of bright people, sometimes lively discussions and great ideas.  Once we even got together as a group to see a baseball game at Pac Bell Park.  Good times!

It was August of 1998 and one morning I was reading one of the print magazines one of the publishers had subscribed me to.  Never complain about free industry subscriptions, btw.  Sometimes you find gems, like the one I found that morning.

Regardless, there was a short article in which a representative from Netscape was explaining that Navigator would be unable to fully support the standards as formalized by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C.

So, we had Microsoft and Netscape taking diverging views on standards support and a web looking more and more like a train wreck.  It pissed me off and I needed to vent.  So I vented into an email that I sent to NoEnd.

That email was the snowball that made standards a priority after a lively discussion.  In the end Jeffrey Zeldman, George Olson, and myself cofounded The Web Standards Project, or WaSP, and for a while, I was a voice of WaSP writing Word from the WaSP invectives about standards issues, traveling and talking to browser vendors, etc.

Jeffrey designed the website and the three of us gathered some amazing people and together, pushed the browser makers for standards support as well as worked to help define, demonstrate, and build tests for standards.  

As individuals we had had some successes, as a group, we were amazing and the web you use today is in part operational because of these talented people.

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