Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

The grand irony as we debate the importance of validation and what web standards are is this little bugaboo:

Web “standards” aren’t.

The W3C provides specifications and recommendations which have been coined by practitioners as “standards” when they are not precisely standards, but de facto standards. ISO, for example, is a standards organization with a full compliance set that if not met – well, products don’t ship, period. With a true standard, compliance is mandatory. With de facto standards, what we have are browser compliance problems up our collective wazoo.

What we also appear to have is confusion as to what qualifies as a “web standard.”

Taking a closer look

In HTML and XHTML there is an implication in the specs that working in a strict environment is the ideal. That using meaningful markup is ideal. But neither of these are a real or even de facto standard. So semantic markup is an implied goal, not even a measure of compliance, and something we are trying still to understand. Semantic markup is a best practice, not an explicit recommendation.

Separation of presentation and content? An implied ideal, not a measure of compliance, and something we are still working toward perfecting despite the user agent concerns. Documents using table-based layouts can be completely conforming and even Strict DTDs contain what could be interpreted as presentational elements and attributes (b, i, width, height, cellspacing). Separation of presentation and content is a best practice, not an explicit requirement across the boards.

Media types? The W3C uses very specific language in its recommendations such as SHOULD, MAY, STRONGLY RECOMMENDED and MUST NOT. This language is always written in upper case and presented in bold. Media type purists need to read this and weep:

“’application/xhtml+xml’ SHOULD be used for XHTML Family documents, and the use of ‘text/html’ SHOULD be limited to HTML-compatible XHTML 1.0 documents. ‘application/xml’ and ‘text/xml’ MAY also be used, but whenever appropriate, ‘application/xhtml+xml’ SHOULD be used rather than those generic XML media types. ”

This means you should serve XHTML 1.0 as application/xhtml+xml, but that you also may use text/html as a media delivery type for XHTML. XHTML 1.1 differs in that it SHOULD NOT be served as text/html. The only MUST NOT issues we see in the specs is that HTML 4 MUST NOT be served as any form of XML. Managing media types is explicit, and therefore a “web standard” although there is an implication of best practices in the case of XHTML 1.0 here, too.

Validation? Here’s a surprise! Validation is in and of itself not a requirement per se. What is required is conformance. So you theoretically don’t have to validate a darn thing but if you want to test its conformance, which IS an explicit requirement, you have to validate.

Add it up

So, here’s what we have:

  • Separation of presentation and structure: implied as ideal: a best practice.
  • Semantic markup: implied: a best practice.
  • Content delivery via media types: explicit, a “standard.”
  • Well-formed markup: explicit, a “standard.”
  • Conformance: explicit, a “standard.”

Clearly a difference between what is an explicit part of a specification or recommendation and what is the ideal goal that’s implied by either the specification and practitioners (or both).

Separation of practice and science

There is also a separation within the industry of practice and science. This is an idea that applies to a lot of professions, but at the recent UI9 Conference, Jared Spool presented an interesting keynote in which he separated usability into practice and science, and I immediately noticed the relationship this has to web standards.

In our case, the science does not always provide everything required for practice, but it sure does provide lots of help. The opposite is also true: our practice doesn’t always follow the science (and we have plenty of evidence of that).

Ideally, the practice should follow the science wherever it can, and spurning the science as being unimportant is like telling a doctor to not treat a patient with antibiotics where there is a clear case of bacterial infection. The possible result in not bridging that gap is death.

I am deeply concerned about practitioners and advocates who blow off conformance when they can and should conform and claim it’s okay to do so.

When we cannot conform – for reasons beyond our control – there is a great need there for us to discuss why and try to help solve some of those problems (suck CMSs, ad servers, time factors), but that is no reason to say that validation and conformance are unnecessary, and certainly no reason to point a finger at the science as having failed. In those cases, the practitioners are failing the science, I’m sorry to say. Of course, the science – and our practice of it – can and should be improved as time goes on, and I believe that it will.

As an educator, and at this point in my own understanding of things (once upon a time I wrote all about web design practice without understanding any of the science, and I’m plenty guilty of not applying the science even when I know I should) what concerns me most is that anyone who takes the stand that conformance is an unnecessary part of practice is essentially acting as a doctor not prescribing the proper medication when there’s a clear scientific solution.

Such a message to other practitioners is a dangerous one. With it, we degrade our goals, and ultimately end up with poorly educated practitioners, poorly educated software developers, and severely compromised user agents and development tools as a result.

What’s more, there seems to be a belief out there that best practices are wrapped up with de facto standards when they are implied but not explicit. This is a problem with semantics (sorry to put it that way, but it is). The term “web standards” is and always has been a misnomer, and we are suffering many of these problems because of that fact.

So what can we do?

Obviously, the terminology itself has caused problems, but trying to name what we all refer to as “web standards” something else at this point is as impossible as trying to tell people it’s not an “alt tag” when they’ve been using that terminology for 8 years or more.

What we can do is work together more effectively to hone in on what should explicitly fit into a standard, and what is a best practice, and come up with some useful terms that we as professionals understand. These terms should also be more friendly to marketing departments, non-technical support people, and the lay public, and they should adequately describe the marriage of science and practice within our industry.

What we absolutely must do is take care to spread a message that encourages rather than discourages using the best science and best practice. It is holding that goal high that makes us professionals, after all.

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