Tilting at windmills

You see, you can’t understand the issues of the time unless you were working in the trenches.  The people at Microsoft talking about standards, I’m not sure they actually had to code like the real heroes of the web. The real heroes were the ones coding in all the hacks to try to get their webpages to work everywhere.

Microsoft was a hard nut to crack.  The people in contact with me regarding Web Standards reminded me of the people in high school that didn’t like nerds like me.  They got the dates and the glory and we were just the nerds in the A/V Club.  This was probably just me misunderstanding the emails, etc. based on my own text communication issues.

We had many circular conversations.  It was almost like they had a script they were required to espouse when needed.

Microsoft:  What standards do you need us to support?

Me:  All of them.

Microsoft:  We’re sorry Glenn, but our corporate customers don’t really care about web standards so we’re building the things they want into our browser.  So, which are the specific standards you want us to support?

Me:  All of them.

Microsoft:  We’re sorry Glenn, but our…

And we can’t forget that Microsoft wanted to shame us for using hacks instead of standards when WaSP’s whole argument at the time was that we hated having to know all of these hacks and we wanted standards so we didn’t have to rewrite the web pages for different browsers.  

The dream of the web was write once, read many.  It astounds me today how there are still people out there that don’t want their sites accessible.  (I’m trying to make sure this one is, but I’m new at WordPress and the modern web.)

The standards weren’t vast at the time.  Did Microsoft ever fully support CSS-1 for instance?  They gave us a scrolling marquee tag.   Who was that tag for, anyway, in the 1990’s?  I don’t know.  It was just cruft piled onto a clunky web browser when you don’t care about accessibility.  The whole point of CSS, separating the content from the style is so that the content may be styled to display in different formats on different devices.  

And why is this especially important?  Well, how do you style your content for a blind person who uses a text reader? How do you style your content for people who suffer color blindness?  Accessibility is critical.  Everyone should be able to enjoy your content and this was something being realized in the 90’s.

Have you ever tried the Read option for your browser?  It restyles the content to be more readable and it can do so because today, style and content are two separate parts of a webpage.   It’s a safe bet that many people don’t know that you can have a separate style sheet for printing a web page.  Personally, I think a lot of developers don’t realize that either. 

Now you have to understand that Microsoft had representatives on the standards bodies that were determining what the standards in our web browsers should be and how they should operate together.  They just didn’t seem to care to support them.  They wanted their ideas standardized over using the ideas of others.  It’s a common problem with corporations.

There were people at Microsoft that actually cared about standards support.  They just weren’t in the circle of people I dealt with.

Tantek Çelik was in charge of the Mac version of Internet Explorer and was able to do some remarkable work while the Windows side of MS didn’t seem to really care. Tantek was also on the standards bodies.  We owe him a debt of gratitude for his standards work.  He was one of the many who helped us get where we are now and I, for one, greatly appreciate his contributions.  He too, was part of the WaSP at one point.

Microsoft didn’t like doing things the way other browsers were doing it.  But they did some interesting things.  Let’s look at DHTML for example.

The Project Cool website was all about DHTML in its execution.  The moment I could start doing impossible things on it, I had so much fun.

If you look at my design gallery here you’ll see a screen shot of one of my Project Cool webpages.  You can’t tell it, but that page had a mouseover affect.  If you were to mouseover any one of those buttons, the image at the top would change to an image associated with that section of the website.  The code to to this was available in the webpage and could be seen by viewing the source.  I also fully documented the code and literally told people to steal it and make it their own.

This particular trick wouldn’t work in the Internet Explorer of the time.  But Microsoft had a new solution.  I don’t recall what it was called but I went to a small MS conference training session and made a version of the page using Microsoft’s new technology.  The result was actually a bit smoother than the JavaScript version I was using, but it only worked in the one version of Internet Explorer.  It was very non-standard.  It was pretty cool though, and I think I put it online briefly, but can’t recall for sure.

This was before the big push for DHTML.

Don’t get me wrong when I say I felt like the A/V nerd. I am an A/V nerd, however. Let me give you an example of how Microsoft saw me.

Microsoft didn’t seem to understand that web designers actually worked for a living and that the lack of standards support meant that web designers had to work harder and longer on what should have been simple tasks.  They wanted detailed input from web designers specifying exactly which standards they should support and why.  (I think that eventually they finally accepted the “all of them” response, but that was after I was gone.)

So WaSP, or me, I don’t remember which, created a form letter that asked for standards support and gave the opportunity for elaboration, but these were working people and taking a half hour to an hour to document what Microsoft knew already was just silly.

I don’t know how many of those form letters asking for standards support MS received, but they weren’t happy.  I can’t remember if the email Christof wrote was internal or not but somehow I saw a copy of it and this event was labeled “a Glenn Davis temper tantrum.”

It was never a temper tantrum.  It was a demonstration from the people who had to actually build websites.  You see, you can’t understand the issues of the time unless you were working in the trenches.  The people at Microsoft talking about standards, I’m not sure they actually had to code like the real heroes of the web. The real heroes were the ones coding in all the hacks to try to get their webpages to work everywhere.

We all knew what the future should be, we just had to make it happen.  I preached it to anyone who would listen and the word spread from me and the many talented people involved both inside out outside of WaSP.

And while I was never involved in the actual standards work, I was seen as one of the faces of WaSP. All my other work pushing the web forward led to the need for true standards support.  Cool things should work everywhere, right?   Build once, view many. The web you are using right now, is the direct result of the work of WaSP and other standards advocates who fought for this.  It was the most important work we did in the 90’s.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received about my time on the web and my push for standards came on the day of my departure from the company who bought Project Cool.

“Glenn’s one of the closest things we have to a good Old Testament prophet.” – Steve Champeon

That still moves me, 22 years later.

It was an amazing time.  The web was going from being a frontier to actually having a solid foundation to build upon.  The promise of a better future was being realized.  

Shortly after that, it was decided my soap box could be dismantled and others would write the essays for WaSP.  The time of prophets was done, and WaSP settled down to do the work with Microsoft, Netscape, and every other browser maker around.

And while I’m always remembered for Cool Site of the Day, I think the formation of The Web Standards Project was my most important work.  And that was just me, standing on a soapbox, preaching the need for standards.

2 Responses

  1. My passion for the web began in 1996 and I can honestly say that I never visited CSotD back then (sorry :(). But I did visit WaSP frequently and it fueled my enthusiasm for all things standard. To this day, I still tangle with developers who do things like add JS event listeners to div’s so that a checkbox or radio button can be selected when the associated text is clicked. They still stare in disbelief when I show them that I can do the same thing with a label both implicitly or explicitly associated.

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