What crisis?

Have web standards died and gone to hell?

Has HTML 4.01 stopped working in browsers? I was not aware of it. Has XHTML 1.0 stopped working in browsers? I was not aware of it. Do browser makers intend to stop supporting HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0? I was not aware of it. Do they intend to stop supporting CSS 1 and CSS 2.1? I was not aware of it.

Has the W3C withdrawn the WCAG 1.0 accessibility guidelines? Nobody told me. Have the WCAG Samurai withdrawn their errata listing? I must have called in sick that day. Have browsers stopped supporting the DOM and ECMAScript? First I’ve heard. Has structured, semantic markup stopped making the content of web pages easier for people and search engines to find, and for assistive software and devices to navigate? I didn’t get the memo.

What exactly is the crisis in web standards? People assure me there is one. But they can’t be bothered to explain.

Certainly the W3C moves at a glacial pace. It’s why we write float when we mean column. But a glacial pace isn’t all bad, especially if you’re driving off a cliff (which I gather we are). Driving off a cliff at a glacial pace affords you the luxury to turn around. I loves me some glacial pace.

The glacial pace of the W3C has given browser makers time to understand and more correctly implement existing standards. It has also given designers and developers time to understand, fall in love with, and add new abilities to existing standards.

So the glacial pace can’t be the crisis. Maybe the problem is lack of leadership. One worries about the declining relevance of The Web Standards Project. (Note the capital “T” in “The”—people who believe in standards should also believe in and follow style guides.) One has worried about the declining relevance of The Web Standards Project since 2002.

There is surely work still to be done. For one thing, mobile devices (the iPhone excepted) need to better support those existing web standards I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I suspect that the people now running The Web Standards Project are working on this and other problems; they’re just not publicizing their efforts until they have more successes to report. That’s how it feels to me, but I could be wrong. This whole post could be wrong. This whole court could be out of order.

Maybe the W3C is the problem, or maybe the problem is that there is standards-related activity going on outside the W3C. Depending on who you talk to, each of the preceding clauses defines the crisis.

Certainly the W3C is political. Certainly some, perhaps more than some, of its committees bog down in in-fighting. In pursuit of a theory, or from lack of fresh air, committee members too often forget the user. Specifications like XHTML 2 and guidelines like WCAG 2 can seem misguided to people who actually create websites for a living. Happily, there are signs that the W3C wants to shed some of its hermeticism and do a better job of listening. Unhappily, there are also signs to the contrary. Depends where you look and who you talk to.

Certainly there is a risk of fragmentation. Two groups, one inside the W3C and the other outside it, are working on HTML 5. Their motivations and methods differ. Their work may come together at some point, or it may not. If there is a rift, the “wrong” HTML 5 may catch on. Heavens!

One day, people from nice homes may forsake XHTML for HTML 5, making us wonder what that XHTML pony ride was all about anyway. Or not. If HTML 5 bombs, we’re not so badly off with the markup specifications we have. Remember this. It may help you sleep at night. If HTML, CSS, or accessibility go seriously astray (and depending on who you ask, at least two of these are in trouble), we will still be able to use HTML 4.01, XHTML 1.0, CSS1 and 2.1, ECMAScript, the DOM, and WCAG 1.0 (with our without reference to the samurai errata) when Britney has grandkids.

Sensible new standards may yet emerge from the W3C, or from elsewhere, or they may not come at all. Some of this may matter before we ride hover cars.

I don’t make standards and I haven’t endured what some who’ve advised standards makers have had to put up with. God bless the advisors. But their frustrations do not a crisis make—any more than a bad meeting with one of my clients foretells the end of capitalism.

Possibly one or both versions of HTML 5 are abandoning accessibility or damning themselves with the same kind of deliberate backward incompatibility that has made XHTML 2 such a profound non-starter in many people’s estimation. One would like to believe that market forces would correct any such deviation from the path of reason, but the influence of market forces on the web has too often been malign for us to expect so upbeat a resolution. This, perhaps, is the crisis our friends talk about but don’t explain.

I have heard the harbingers in blogs and newsgroups but I have not understood their lamentations because, with the exceptions of Joe Clark and Gian Sampson-Wild, none I’ve seen has bothered to document and make clear to others precisely where they believe a specific standard is going wrong.

I wish they would explain. Less drama and more clarity, please. A trail of newsgroup messages you need a roadmap to navigate and a PhD to parse does not constitute a call to arms.

Is there truly a crisis in web standards? Tell us. We will support you. But really tell us.


By Jeffrey Zeldman

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek.

Hi! I’m a principal designer at Automattic, Inc. Also: Publisher and founder, A List Apart “for people who make websites.” Publisher and co-founder, A Book Apart—brief books for people who design, write, and code. Co-founder and co-host, An Event Apart UX & front-end conference. Faculty, MFA Interaction Design, School of Visual Arts, NYC. Host, The Big Web Show. Have written two books, notably ”Designing With Web Standards,“ currently in its 3rd Edition, and, on last count, translated into 15 languages and used as a text in 85 universities.