Technology, View Source Conference

Why the web needs diversity and standards

Notes from the View Source 2019 conference: shaping the future of the web needs respect, collaboration, diversity and standardisation. Long live browser wars!

The web at 30

Where were you 30 years ago? Henri Helvetica (not his real surname, not the son of the Swiss typeface) kicks off View Source 2019 (a conference for the web) by taking us on a trip down memory lane. Three decades ago, the Simpsons debuted on television, Grammy-awarded (later revoked) ‘Best New Artists’ Milli Vanilli got exposed as frauds, and Netscape Navigator was the ‘gangsta’ when it came to web browsers. Were you born yet? Did you imagine where, how or what you were going to become today? …and did you get it right?

Whatever we had imagined the web to become, it could not have been exactly how it is today. That’s innovation. Henri’s keynote argues that today’s web is in great shape thanks to open collaboration – 12,000 contributors made 747,000 contributions (of which less than 9% was code). To keep guiding it along the right path into the future, he calls for collaboration, respect, multi-lingual documentation, and diversity in all flavours – including diversity in developers, gender, culture, [coding] languages and browsers.

Browser diversity: keep those boxing gloves on!

In agreement with the call for browser diversity, Mike Taylor wants us to embrace the pain of web browser testing. Ouch! That’s a tough call for a trade-off. But every browser maker comes to the table with its own agenda. For example, Apple (Safari) sells hardware; Google (Chrome) earns revenue from advertising; Mozilla (Firefox) are the “ivory tower nerds… trying to make the internet the best place possible.” It’s those struggles through the push and pulls between representatives with different motives that we reach common ground. Amidst the tussles, we need to advocate for the people who’re using the web, including protecting their privacy and security. The portal to the web should never be owned by any single party. Long live browser wars!

Standards rule OK

Emerging technologies need standardisation to grow. “It’s really important that our web technologies are and remain international standards. Because that makes them truly accessible to everybody everywhere.” says Jory Burson. To do that, a technology needs to go through a journey akin to a hero in a computer game – advance through levels of challenges until it meets the final ‘boss’ of the game. Or, in real-life terms, it needs to go through reviews, meet the rules and regulations of successive governing bodies, ending at the final hurdle of passing the scrutiny of the relevant international standards bodies – such as the ISO, IEC and ITU. To ‘win’ the game, the technology needs to be robust, resilient, verifiable and repeatable.

How are the standards made?

Specifications for web technologies may be derived by different groups in different ways. A Standards Group panel discussion at the conference highlighted some similarities and differences. Whilst they all initially start with a bottom-up process, whereby anyone can propose an idea (for example, a feature or a solution to a problem), the way the decisions are subsequently made may be by committee and/or by community.

By committee

Organisations such as the W3C and Ecma International have a formal evaluation process, from idea proposal to final specification. A successful proposal needs to be useful to different communities, be interoperable (can work across different systems) and have multiple implementations (have been tried and tested in its use by more than one party). Whilst having formal stages help to make sure the new technology is robust, the documentation involved can be full of jargon, and decision-making by consensus can be time-consuming. This can be true to such an extent that the W3C advisory board created a task force to improve working group effectiveness, including writing documentation1 to explain its documentation!

By community

By contrast, standards for open source technologies are evaluated less formally. A new feature may be considered ‘accepted’ if it is being used by many people. One of the panellists observed that with OAuth (Open Authorization) and the IndieWeb community, “people just throw something out there and then see what sticks… it’s not like you’re bringing it to this committee. You’re just bringing it into the community and see if anybody else is interested and willing to build it.” The overall work approach also differs, “I see a lot of people working on different things in parallel… not so much of we are all building this one thing, but we’re all building many small things together”. This is mirrored in its documentation, which records evolving work rather than a definitive specification.

Whether technology development is guided by committee or by community, both approaches are intended to create a web that serves collaborative needs. Its usefulness can only be reflected by the needs and diversity of its participants. How much greater can the web be shaped in the next 30 years?

Article updated on 18 October 2019


Notes:

  1. [1] W3C Process for Busy People
Standard

One thought on “Why the web needs diversity and standards

  1. Glenn says:

    This really captures the sense of the day…some ‘exciting’ presentations touching on important issues.

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