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.
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.