IE8, Opera, CSS and Standards getting in a tizzy

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle lately over the Opera complaint that Microsoft is a monopolist that doesn’t uphold Web Standards. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who believes that it’s perfectly feasible for Microsoft and Opera to continue to work with each other on CSS, regardless of their current spat.

While I share Andy Clarke’s frustration about the glacial pace of change, I think the idea of having web professionals oust the browser manufacturers from main specification process, relegating them to “a Technical Advisory Panel to look over the Project’s proposals” is unworkable and potentially more cumbersome. Imagine if you’re hired to develop a website for a large oganisation and play no part in the specification process, but merely get a spec arrived at by competing, squabbling end-users who then say “implement this”. Without the active, day-to-day involvement of the browser vendors, specs would be slower, less coherent and probably unworkable. It’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter when CSS3 becomes a recommendation, it won’t magically upgrade all the browsers; the spec is only useful when (and if) it is actually implemented by the vendors.

I’m also glad that Opera have raised the stakes with a complaint to the European Union. A few frustrated outbursts aside, I’ve never been anti-Microsoft—but I am most definitely anti-monopoly. A monopoly can never benefit consumers, and it must be forced to compete. That force can’t come from the market (it’s a monopoly), so must come from government or similar organisation.

When Microsoft had a competitor in Netscape, it innovated: Internet Explorer had the best CSS support and IE6 was a marvellous browser that ushered in the era of CSS-based design. But once Microsoft killed Netscape, Internet Explorer stagnated , causinng the woe that we still partly feel today. But 18 months ago there was a convincing new competitor in Firefox, Microsoft began innovating again—and look! IE8 passes Acid2!

So I’m glad that Opera are trying to break Microsoft’s monopoly. Being British, I also admire the plucky Norwegian underdog, and I’m personally convinced that Opera are concerned at the highest level with upholding standards. I’m persuaded by Molly of the sincerity of the I.E. team, but I have no faith that those at the top of Microsoft would give a shit about standards if their profits or monopoly were threatened.

But take a breath, and step back from all of this and look at the radically new landscape that surrounds us.

What we see is another browser war, but based on who can uphold standards best. Opera go to the E.U. with a complaint that I.E. doesn’t uphold standards; a day later, I.E. announces that it passes Acid2, even though they knew that a week ago. What can have caused that announcement, other than the impetus to brag about your standards support? The good news is that the browser manufacturers see standards and interoperability as useful armaments rather than troublesome impediments.

So, while the browser manufacturers are upholding standards, what are the Web Standards Project doing? Zeldman writes,

I’m disheartened by the general lack of leadership. I wish The Web Standards Project would either disband or get meaningfully busy.

Now, I’m only a newbie WaSP task force member, not a real, clever WaSP, but my take is that everyone’s been caught off guard—when the traditional enemies are doing your work for you by promoting standards, it’s somewhat disconcerting. And without a real enemy, things fragment in a loose confederation of individuals.

My personal “enemy” is inaccessibility, and James Craig, Patrick Lauke and I fought a battle wth Microformats advocates because some of their patterns are functionally inaccessible. It was a gruelling battle, involving disagreements with other WaSP members, and in the face of overwhelming apathy, we withdrew.

The other problem is with Ajax (“Accessibility Just Ain’t eXciting”). Most Ajax remains fundamentally inaccessible—and despite the valiant efforts of Derek Featherstone, Gez Lemon, Steve Faulkner, Brothercake and Jeremy Keith—few people give a toss.

In the topsy-turvy world where browser manufacturers are promoting standards, many opinion formers and web standards advocates are so transfixed with the shiny shiny Ajax and hCard baubles that they don’t see that they’re in mortal danger of becoming part of the problem.

Who wants to rail with me against the latest marketable sexy Web 2.0 bells and whistles?

Thought not.

I’ll just carry on evangelising semantics and accessibility in the companies that employ me, at workshops, on my blog and hope this current tizzy dies down.

14 Responses to “ IE8, Opera, CSS and Standards getting in a tizzy ”

Comment by JackP

Bruce – I agree it is feasible (and now indeed I think likely) that MS and Opera can still work together. However I do also think that it was a perfectly reasonable question to ask, given the circumstances.

I’m also with you on anti-monopoly, not necessarily anti-MS (but certainly anti “less than or equal to” IE6), and I’ve steered clear of the whole microformats thing because I care about accessibility and for the most part I get the feeling they don’t.

And, like yourself, I’ve never been one who is afraid of volunteering my opinion:-)

However, I think it’s possible to have a group effectively steered from outside the vendor community [and I’m not saying you can do it by consensus] who steer an appropriate line between the various requests of the development community, vendor suggestions and what vendors tell them is actually feasible to achieve…

Comment by Georg

Opera and Microsoft working together on CSS? I don’t see any real, new, problems. Discussing how to improve and speed up the process can’t hurt, but what’s suggested until now doesn’t look like much. Moving browser vendors to a less influential position would create real problems, and most certainly wouldn’t solve any of the existing ones.

I’ve made up my mind about the nonsensical Web 2.0 garbage, so count me in on the “against the non-working nonsense” side.

Comment by Bruce

Joe, I mean Tantek and his refusal to believe that there is a problem, that machine-only data should be hidden from humans, and that anyone who questions the orthodoxy (which was only ever a hack because of Safari’s deficiencies) is “chicken-littling”.

Why is it so important to you that I name people?

Comment by Ed Everett

I’ll rail with you – I’d hope there’s more of us than there appears.

The microformats lot seem so involved with how clever they are that they forget it’s all a big hack and mis-use (mis-understanding?) of the idea of semantics.

Perhaps it’s time for the web-stuckists movement?

Comment by Richard Conyard

Bruce,
If you feel disheartened and fancy a change the panto season is coming up; you and Patrick would certainly get the crowd going.

Perhaps more on point with your post. I can see the reasons behind your and other peoples decisions to avoid talking to brick walls and concentrate on the day to day advocacy with people that are willing to listen and more importantly learn. It is a pity though that things have come to a pass where you and others feel this way.

Hopefully the new year will bring a new outlook from those pushing web 2.0 bells and whistles where they can look to adoption within best practice rather than riding roughshod over it.

Either way Merry Christmas!

Comment by Jim

I’ve resumed posting on microformats-discuss. A little bird told me that Tantek Celik pays attention to you if you’re slim and good-looking. Slim and handsome – that’s me!

Comment by Andy Mabbett

@Bruce: Progress is tediously slow, but it can only go in one direction. Mountains are worn down by gentle streams!

@Jim: Perhaps that’s why Bruce and I have been making so little progress ;-)