Clarke Calls for CSS Working Group to be Disbanded

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Having recently announced the CSS Eleven initiative to provide designer feedback and input into the W3C’s CSS Working Group, Andy Clarke has responded to the Opera-Microsoft antitrust action by calling for the Group to be dissolved entirely and rebuilt without browser vendors in a controlling role.

He considers this necessary not only because he doubts that the representatives of Opera and Microsoft can collaborate on CSS3 while locked in a legal battle, but also because he feels it’s time the future of web standards was led by those of us who will eventually use them in our daily work, not those who hope to make money by making browsers.

Clarke’s indictment of Opera’s legal action has been echoed by many in the web design community. CSS expert Eric Meyer considers the Opera move to be bad timing, coming right when Microsoft was showing promise with IE7 and the upcoming IE8:

It’s the wrong move at the wrong time, sending precisely the wrong signal to Microsoft about the importance of participating in development and support of open standards, and I can only hope that it comes to a quiet and unheralded end.

But few seem to agree with Clarke’s proposal to restructure the CSS Working Group. Many believe the group has life in it yet, while others are calling for the wholesale abandonment of the W3C process.

The voice of reason in all this seems to be Alex Russell of the Dojo Toolkit. In his article, The W3C Cannot Save Us, he explains that what is really holding the Web back is our fanatical devotion to web standards, and the expectation that they can dictate what new features should be added to web browsers.

Put simply, Zeldman is hurting you and only you can make it stop. Neither the CSS WG nor the HTML 5 WG nor, indeed, any W3C working group can define the future. They can only round off the sharp edges once the future becomes the past and that’s all we should ever expect of them. As much as they tell us (and themselves) that they can, and as much as they really would like to, the W3C cannot save us.

Long-time Tech Times readers will not be surprised that I agree with Alex. His opinion is pretty much what I said in the Tech Times #137, way back in April 2006:

In my mind, it shouldn’t be the W3C’s job to develop new standards from scratch, nor should the W3C be responsible for championing new features in individual browsers. Those are the jobs of the innovators and early adopters, who push the boundaries of the possible, producing early implementations that blaze trails for future standards to pave.

The one sticking point that Alex doesn’t mention is software patents. If browsers go out and patent every innovative feature they develop, these features will not be freely available for the W3C to standardize for adoption by the other browsers. But perhaps that’s a smaller problem than the ones we’re faced with currently.

In any case, the W3C needs to stop looking towards the future; until they do, the rest of us will be stuck in the past. The W3C is eminently capable of writing solid specs that describe what browsers do today. They should stick to that (it’s a big job!), and let the world know that adding nonstandard features to web browsers is not a crime.

The future is not built by consensus in a working group; it’s built by visionaries trying stuff out and making mistakes.

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  • http://www.studiokdd.com/ kdd

    i don’t think that the css wg needs to be disbanded. back in the early years of plumbing there were no standards and getting fixtures to fit that needed repair was a pain.

    web designers and developers are behind the 8 ball enough with browsers not supporting already what the w3c and the css wg have set as recommendations that have somehow become standards.

    maybe rather than disbanding the css wg and w3c, maybe there should be a moratorium on neww features and let browser manufacturers catch up and then SLOWLY implement new features to css so manufacturers can keep up.

    this makes sense to me. why throw out the baby with the bath water when the web has come so far with some form of standards for developers and designers to work with?

    dwain alford
    winfield, alabama
    member ~ web standards group

  • Augustus

    Standards across the board being accepted by all browser makers is surely a fantasy that will never reach fruition. Developers will always want to add their own bits and pieces to enhance their software in order for it to be ‘better than our competitors’. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about individual browser makers or their own ideas. What I would like to see is a standard that is set to an absolute minimum across the board where all working standards are bug free and complete. We shouldn’t have to worry about something needing a hack to work in IE or anything else – this just wastes time and energy for individual developers. We aren’t all brilliant web designers who know how fixes work etc so elimination of all that stuff needs to be addressed first and not building new browsers that just carry on this mess. If any additions are made to other browsers on their own then these should be offered up to others for implementation immediately so it may be rolled out across the board.

    Whether or not a group of experts working on the W3C sort this or not is irrelevant. It’s down to everybody to come together to agree where to go next. Sort out the darned bugs – then get the rest done later.

  • Disillusioned

    Got to agree – we still need standards bodies to refine and polish what has been implemented, but innovation has to come from the browser makers. Developers than implement those features e.g. canvas/svg/XHR and the standards bodies formulates the standards based on the implementation(s)…

  • ramasaig

    A shake-up may be a good thing. There’s always a danger that a standards body can become austere, remote and self-serving. However, neither do we want a return to the Browser Wars and the need for several different versions of every web page depending on what our sniffers detect.

  • Stuart Langridge

    The one sticking point that Alex doesn’t mention is software patents. If browsers go out and patent every innovative feature they develop, these features will not be freely available for the W3C to standardize for adoption by the other browsers. But perhaps that’s a smaller problem than the ones we’re faced with currently.

    It’s a much, much bigger problem than the ones we’re faced with currently, because software patent problems can’t be solved with technology. The current issues we have can be solved (or at least made better) with technology; you can work around IE not supporting the canvas tag by emulating it in VML, you can work around IE not supporting much of modern CSS with Dean Edwards’ IE7 patch, you can work around Safari’s lack of things like .cellIndex by monkeypatching the prototypes with JavaScript. We, the technical community, have some ability to fix technical problems. We have no ability whatsoever to fix problems caused by patents; they balkanize the web, and that cannot, cannot, be resolved. We don’t have lawyers; the legal system is set up to not really help people with small purses, it takes five years to resolve anything by which time the war has already been lost. Taking problems that we can at least attempt to fix and exchanging them for problems that it’s not possible for us to fix is in no way an improvement.

  • matturn

    New, browser specific features are fine as long as site creators don’t make sites that require these new features for the site to function.

    There must be a solid foundation of client-side code for which there is a universally accepted way of rendering. This is what standards are. This foundation should be completely non-proprietary. This is what open standards are.

    If a browser follows standards, it is standards compliant. If a site is functional on such a browser, it is standards compliant.

    Both can go beyond the standards without losing compliance. Certain features may be non-compliant, but the sites and browsers will not be.

    If the non-standard features are not patented, they will be copied by others if necessary. If sufficiently widespread, they will be become a standard, even if not one endorsed by the W3C.

  • Valerie Coskrey

    I admit to being new to this debate and an amateur programmer and web developer. However, the dialogue sounds a lot like the linguists that want to preserve the English language. Languages evolve with use. The programmers of the websites and the browser developers together will evolve the next languages. After all, what good will innovative programmers do if the browsers do not interpret what is programmed?

    The WC3 is like the Oxford Dictionary in a simplistic sense. I know that the standards committees have a bit more power than that, but even as a dictionary, the committee function is invaluable to the Web. Open source programming is invaluable as a source of progress towards improvement and expansion in Web capabilities. The flexibility of xml and css and Javascript and all the other languages in use coming together in the browser platforms is phenomenal. Any browser that does not implement the newer approaches in the open source and standards languages that programmer adopt, that do not implement the standards that the W3C adopt will find themselves left behind as Web developers create sites that customers cannot read. If the free browsers remain up to date with Standards implementation, how long will it be before customers of the Web download the free browsers and use them consistently?

    The programmers and Web developers need only stop using the workarounds to fix programming that IE doesn’t read and leave ugly text or gaps in the space instead, and Microsoft will fix the IE browser, including its update packages to the older versions. Append a note to a website that says that to see the site in all its glory, use such and such browser and click this button to download it free and see what happens! I know, your customers will be upset, so such a drastic step is not really an option. But it is the dream of many a programmer, I’ll bet.

    In my opinion, the W3C committees need the input of all parties involved in the adoption of the standards: programmers and browser developers. Disbanding the committees is not the answer. Languages evolve because they are useful. The useful standards will be the ones that will continue in effect. Standards that guide the evolution of a language will be helpful, but not the actual controlling power of the final language and its myriad implementations. Codify what is, develop standards that do not limit the power of what is, and suggest grammars and paths for the the future, but know that the future will change these paths and grammars. If a browser doesn’t want to implement the whole range of standards, then publish a subset of xml for that browser (the workarounds?)–and see what happens. Make standards that will expand the Web, not limit it.

  • Damian Edwards

    I couldn’t agree more. Vendors have to be free to innovate and push the boundaries of the web platform in ways that that inspire developers and designers to get behind them. When such a following reaches a certain mass, standardisation by common adoption is somewhat inevitable, and it seems to have worked pretty well in the past. We might not have common support for vector markup, 3-d markup, media and such, but there are options and have been for quite some time thanks to companies willing to invest time and money into creating platforms for us to exploit. Standardisation should be a process of rationalisation, not definition.

  • http://www.domedia.org/ junjun

    I don’t get it..
    Opera and Microsoft are competitors. Opera sues Microsoft because of web standards, and all of a sudden their representatives cannot work together in W3C working group?

    If this is the case, then Bert Bos should politely ask either Opera or Microsoft (or both) to replace their representative that cannot work together in this working group. This should be basic: Your participation in the group should be done professionally, where personal agendas should be left at the door. Or it might not be a problem at all, maybe Andy is just overreacting.

  • Robert Kavanagh

    It appears that a consensus might be built around the notion that the standards group should do what the term implies, that is, define a core set of standards from what is already being used in the browser market, so that developers have a minimal set of tools to employ, which are recognized by all (or most) browzers. Then, I believe a representative body of the web developer community, be it W3C or whoever, should pursue a notion of limited time patents for innovations, which would allow companies to capitalize on new ideas for their browzers, but only for a period of time after which the innovation becomes a part of the public domain, and if worthy, a part of a new standard.

  • josh2000

    Disbanding the W3C would be a big mistake.

    We need a standards body with as much clout as possible to keep the commercial interests from using the Web as a junkyard for their half baked attempts to snag more eyeballs for their bottom line.

    Just as we see the value of separating content from structure we should recognize the value of separating standards from self interested commercial ventures.

    All industries observe standards. That’s what makes them “industries”. Even oil companies agree on what “light sweet crude” is.

    If we let commercial interests like Microsoft, Apple, Comcast (yes Comcast!) steer the web with it’s version of innovation, we will have chaos. The freedom of the web will be for sale to the highest bidding advertizers/political interests. Content will be limited by its commercial value. There’s no two ways about it – commercial interests have a limited view of the “big picture”.

    With a strong, independent standards body, innovations of commercial contributors are evaluated and shared for the good of all users. This is the value of the internet – free access to information for all. We need to have a strong level of standards oversight to guard that higher value.

  • http://www.domedia.org/ junjun

    Disbanding the W3C would be a big mistake.

    Andy did not propose top disband the W3C, he wants to rebuild one of their committees.

  • fantasai

    junjun, you’re absolutely right. Neither Håkon nor the Microsoft reps forsee any problems working together because of Opera’s antitrust complaint. As one Microsoft rep put it, they’re constantly being sued and if they let that get in the way of real work they’d never get anything done.

  • bmilbank@comcast.net

    The W3C’s role in standards-setting has present and future implications.

    First, the backbone of all this is XML. Extensible! If new technologies (future standards) come along, they will extend current ones (in a good XMLish design).

    Browser and other Web-consuming clients can leverage this extensible framework. Within this flexible, adaptive structure of XML-based technologies is ample room for software vendors to innovate. But only if a basic current and future framework is clearly understood.

    Thus, the W3C plays a vital role for the state of implemtation today — as rightly pointed out — but, as set out above, I also maintain they serve a vital role in looking to the future.

    bmm

  • http://stevenjs.com/ stevenjs

    I don’t know or care much about the paraphrenalia surrounding this issue, but I would unequivocally welcome the disbanding of the W3C, and all its working groups, precisely because it produces lemming horde of standards zealots who follow their absurd assertions into the sea.

    Take CSS layout for example, my pet peeve. As a designer, there is not a single justification for this new holy creed, promulgated by a Czarist government of designers, by programmers, for programmers. There is not a single argument in favor of CSS layout that cannot readily be shot full of holes. The net effect is that table designers can no longer get a job, unless they conform to the nazi dictatorship of the W3C “recommendations.” Table designers are their jews. The W3C is an engine on dogmatic rails. I am reminded of Plath, “an engine, an engine, chuffing me off like a jew.”

    As long as the W3C is ruled by theocratic dictatorship, I’d personally like to get my hands around its neck and . . .

  • http://www.domedia.org/ junjun

    junjun, you’re absolutely right. Neither Håkon nor the Microsoft reps forsee any problems working together because of Opera’s antitrust complaint. As one Microsoft rep put it, they’re constantly being sued and if they let that get in the way of real work they’d never get anything done.

    I’ve never met any of them, but I could not imagine that it would influence their work in the committee. Your confirmation of this fanasia proves it for me, you know the current situation more than most people.

  • Anonymous

    I would never advocate abandonment of the W3C. Yet again I see the same problem that’s plaguing the web. The same issue that’s dragging it down when other people say it’s something else. It’s not Microsoft, it’s not standards and it’s certainly not Jeffery Zeldman.

    It’s the designers and developers!

    The extreme vast majority of designers and developers all seem to forget one simple, yet highly important to the point of being crucial, fact: The web is NOT there for designers and developers. It is NOT up to us to define the web. It is there for the users and they define it by their needs. We are only conduits by which they receive their information. Less even, we are only the makers of those conduits.

    So many people on the web, so called experts, point at other experts and say, “No, it’s them who is wrong! How can I be wrong? I’m right! Right people can’t be wrong!” when in the end, to me, it seems no one is even getting it right so everyone must be wrong. At the end of the day Web Standards won’t save or destroy the web. Push it in a direction maybe but it’s not so highly important or restrictive that it will kill the web. We just need to make sure that it’s not every half a decade that it gets redone. Annually or even bi-annually would be much better, not years.

    Yes browser vendors aren’t helping, they’re definitely hurting. Opera just as much as Microsoft as far as I’m concerned. Microsoft because they ignore the rest of the community and just do what they think will make them more money. Opera is on the flip side and with their almost nazi adherence to web standards are stopping designers and developers from experimenting outside the realm of those standards. At the end of the day, both hurt their users.

    No system will be perfect and no system can predict the future. It’s not possible, not now and probably not ever. The best we can hope to do is create a system that is flexible enough to be able to adapt when the future hits us with something we didn’t think would happen. The W3C isn’t ideal, but it could be if it was fixed by those who know, those from all sides of the argument. Those who say the W3C isn’t working and should just be gotten rid of should shut up and start talking about what would need to be done to get it fixed. Recognise that not everything will be or can be fixed but try to get it to a place where everyone can accept it. Those on the side that say the W3C is perfect and not to touch it, shut up you’re also wrong nothing is perfect. Start listening to those who think it’s not and figure out what can be done.

    And if nothing else remember, it’s not about you it’s about the users. If it’s harder for you but easier for the user, that’s right. If it’s easier for you and easier for the user, that’s right. If it’s harder for the user, doesn’t matter if it’s easy or hard for you, it’s wrong. Very wrong.

  • starrgazier

    I’m new to the web design world, but have to comment on this one. If Opera and Microsoft can work together that’s great. The problem I do have with all this is lobbist shouldn’t be part of setting the standards. If Opera and Microsoft are here to lobby for there own needs and not what is best for the web and all it’s users. They should be ask to step aside from participating in the w3c as far as setting standards. Those that set standards should be intrested in the development of the web as a whole for everyone not private intrest groups or business.

  • http://www.panesofglass.org/ aranwe

    As many others have stated, I’m against disbanding the W3C and in favor of them sticking to defining standards around new technologies the browser makers create. After all, if the browser makers don’t implement all of the web standard, why have the standard in the first place? Keep to what’s available.

    Take XForms–that’s an excellent standard, but is requiring a plugin with partial support and/or a server-side application to create an Ajax site really beneficial? Why not create your own framework to do the same (e.g. Rails, et. al.)? In the end, you end up with the same code.

    In this light, Andy’s desire to kick out the browser maker’s is completely backwards. Perhaps what’s needed is to reduce the standard to what’s currently available and enable the browser makers to go back to innovating and driving the future standards by working together. The W3C could then be the community mediator to help competitors standardize emerging technologies to help the designers and developers build one app across all platforms.

    Then again, I’ve begun wondering why standards are such a big deal. After all, desktop developers have to port apps for different systems, and web developers can detect browsers with Javascript, so why not build browser detection into your development framework and build to each browser’s specs? Then you can enhance the user experience accordingly. (I’d prefer all browsers work alike, but as a browser maker, what’s the incentive to innovate in that environment?)

  • XLCowBoy

    Bah.

    There must always be a base set of rules for everything. That’s the way an organized society of any size works. You can’t have 3 different definitions of one element. Imagine if FF, IE, and Opera each had different definitions of what a was? It would throw the entire web community into chaos.

    Anyone who thinks we shouldn’t have standards is a fool.

    Although I agree that browser vendors should NOT be limited by a committee with regards to coming up with new technology, browser vendors SHOULD comply to a basic set of rules.

    In fact, they should legally be forced to do so.

    However, outside of the basic rules, they should be allowed to introduce whatever it is they want, and then the standards groups can then review each innovation, and see which one should be turned into a “standard”.

  • Jay Gilmore (smasingred)

    The net effect is that table designers can no longer get a job, unless they conform to the nazi dictatorship of the W3C “recommendations.”

    Table designers are not HTML authors. They were taught 100% WYSIWYG because that is what the 90s demanded. HTML authors write HTML documents based around information and the presentation of that information.

    I am a pragmatist who uses the HTML standards to enable a team to work on a project and to not be reliant on 3rd party software to ensure some level of sanity. If part of a project means straying from the “letter of the W3C law” then I do it becuase it is about communication and commerce. The browser industry’s migration toward standards support means that less and less I have to worry, “Will this work in browser X?” and more I can design and develop sites that allow users to see the information in the way it is intended without bloat, without lazy-making tools like WYSYWYG tools that allow untrained monkeys to “build” websites.

    Web design is all about compromise and while I think that sometimes the Standardistas go too far I don’t think that it is any different than Grammarians who aim for people to speak and write to a minimum standard. Agreement in some form of minimum standard will allow better communication and allow for better education in real web design instead of many design training courses that spend the bulk of efforts teaching application usage over actual web design and development.

    Cheers,

    Jay Gilmore

  • LUDOVIC

    Standardize it! Let the web developers work on solid ground, not diffuse clouds. If you want to get high with new features, build a (uH! Unified!) platform on which browser specific content could run.

    Accordingly, everything about the display of common features (What?) and text. Flash is one step ahead, it has a strict platform, unified display of features (text, drawings, video, coding). Identic display throughout browsers is the key to have the possibility of building something very cool!

    After this revolution, I don’t want to have to build a website for every version of every existing browser. I want one version of my website to work exactly the same on all browsers! I want HTML to be strict as C. No guessing.

    When people started to talk, they were talking differently I know. It’s time for the HTML and CSS workers to unify their language, no?

  • Ronnie

    There is not a single argument in favor of CSS layout that cannot readily be shot full of holes.

    Do you fancy to write attributes straight into the tags? Well it sucks. You can’t obviously code a page even in HTML, you surely use Dreamweaver or similar. Unluckily(?), a web page is not a photoshop image with some clickable hotspots. You don’t understand the need for CSS coz you are not a webdesigner but a graphic artist doing more than you should do.

  • Ronnie

    You might also be interested to read this report:
    http://www.nngroup.com/reports/accessibility/beyond_ALT_text.pdf
    by Jakob Nielsen who is considered to be among the top experts in the field

    Here is a little excerpt from page 114

    Avoid using tables for visual design, however. People using screen reader and Braille displays gain nothing from such use except confusion. They expect tables to organize information, and when they are instead used to fix page size, it is confusing.

  • Ronnie

    Those that set standards should be intrested in the development of the web as a whole for everyone not private intrest groups or business.

    The only way to do that is inviting browsers vendors to the board and agree on standards, which is exactly what happens.

    Anyone who thinks we shouldn’t have standards is a fool.

    ….or a complete newbie I would say.

  • Francois

    stevenjs wrote :

    Take CSS layout for example, my pet peeve. As a designer, there is not a single justification for this new holy creed, promulgated by a Czarist government of designers, by programmers, for programmers.

    So true. Let this CSS bullshit away and let’s create something which can be created visually. Programmers mock it of course (they want to keep their business). But those CSS are an incredible regression. Do you code your page when you use a word processing software like Word, or something like Indesign ? You would laugh at this idea. We are in 2008, not 1985 anymore. And even in 1985, there wasn’t something as past-due as a word-processing software which would have obliged to code yourself your layout.

    Programmers say that people who say that are people who aren’t smart enough to code. And they add that coding is easy, or not so difficult. But if coding is so complicated that a software isn’t able to automate the programming of a page, a software written by the finest programmers, how could I (or the average people) be able to do it properly ?

    And where those stupidities have lead us ? To the bloggisation of the web. Creating a site with an average cool design is so much complicated with CSS, that people have stopped to create website. They just use blog softwares.

    People could use the old fashioned tables. But tables are also quite complicated, because they have flaws and you must know little tricks like the 1×1 pixel gif, and other stupid things like that to make them work. And beginners can’t have any answer about those issues. Because there are only CSS aficionados on the forums. So, each time you ask a question, they don’t answer you and tell you to learn CSS, that it is not so hard, etc… It is hard for non programmers people.

    So for millions of people, bye bye web design. Hello blogs.