Whither W3C? | June 17, 2007

I’ve been a strong proponent of web standards since first being introduced to them back in 2000 by Jefrey Zeldman. I started discussing standards on my local mailing list, then on my blog, and finally at conferences and events. I even wrote a book on the subject.

Over the last seven years I’ve seen web standards go from relative obscurity to industry best practice. Browser support is now extremely good, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a job advert for a front-end developer that didn’t require a thorough knowledge of CSS. We no longer talk about them with such fervour on our blogs or at web conferences, preferring to talk about design, typography or user experience instead. Like all good standards, they have started to become invisible.

This invisibility is partly due to their widespread adoption. However it is also down to their slow rate of change. A few years ago we were seeing new CSS techniques appearing almost weekly, as developers tried to push the boundaries. However we’ve now reached a plateau with what can be achieved with the existing technologies, and need to look towards the future. Towards the people building the next generation of web standards.

The W3C has come under quite a bit of criticism of late for the slow development of CSS3, the wrong direction it took with XHTML2.0, and the mess it made with WCAG2.0. High profile developers have called into question everything from the organisational structure and decision making process through to the lack of transparency and the way it engages with the wider community.

To help address these issues, several people have set out on their own paths with greater or lesser success. As a response to the bloated and unworkable XHTML2.0 specification, the WHATWG set out to create something more relevant for today’s web application developers. Operating as a benevolent dictatorship, the WHAT working group was open to the views of the community, while managing to avoid getting bogged down in endless political discussions. While I’m not sure the model could work for other projects, the results have been pretty impressive. The working group has now become an official W3C working group, and the draft specification has been renamed HTML5.

Unlike other W3C working groups, anybody can join the official mailing list as an “invited expert”. From what I understand the list is very highly trafficked, and the technical level of the discussion is quite difficult to follow by your average web developer. However this willingness to engage seems to be baring fruit, and many of the less palatable ideas like reserved class names have been dropped. Apart from the working groups insistence on keeping the font element, everything else I’ve seen has been pretty impressive so far. In a recent post, Ian Hickson suggested maybe doing the same for CSS.

Taking a different approach was Joe Clark and his WCAG Samurai. A relatively secretive group of individuals, the Samurai were tasked with amending the existing web content accessibility guidelines. These guidelines were written a very long time ago and have been showing their age for years. With WCAG2.0 in development hell at the time, amending the existing spec seemed like a very sensible idea. The resulting guidelines have recently been published along with two “blind” peer reviews. While I doubt WCAG1.0 +Samurai will ever become an official guideline, it makes a lot of sense on first examination and I applaud Joe for his persistence and hard work.

I’m not sure if WCAG1.0 +Samurai has had any affect on the official accessibility working group, but they seem to have addressed most of the original concerns with WCAG2.0 which is very positive.

My own personal bugbear is CSS3. We’ve been waiting for CSS3 now for seven years, and while some of the modules are nearing completion, others may never see the light of day. I’ve listened to a lot of the arguments why CSS3 is taking so long, and I do understand. It is a very complicated project being developed primarily by volunteers, so is bound to take time. One of the most illuminating articles on the subject comes from invited expert, Elika Etemad, and is well worth a read.

I recently proposed an interim specification called CSS2.2 which would include all the CSS3 selectors, properties and values that had at least one existing browser implementation. This would include things like multiple background images, border images, border radius, web fonts, text shadows, box shadows and multi column layout.

By concentrating on already implemented features, this should be a relatively easy specification to produce. The documentation has already been written for CSS3, and the test cases and implementations are in place. Any extra work that needs to be done on these new features will need to be done for CSS3 anyway, so it seems like the job is more editorial than technical. Unless I’m missing something crucial it should be as simple as transposing these new features into the completed CSS2.1 spec and creating a new point release.

This interim spec would then give browser vendors something to aim for, and provide developers with the features we need to innovate. We could then start thinking about what new, as yet to be implemented features we’d like to see in a future point release. This would make the whole standards process much more iterative and get the popular or easily implemented features out in the wild faster.

Reaction to the idea seems largely positive. Most of the developers I’ve spoken to welcome the idea of an interim specification, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Hakon Lie promoting the concept at both Reboot and @media London. In fact, it seems to have provoked some interesting discussions inside Opera. I’ve also had people contact me suggesting we start up some kind of grassroots movement to promote the idea of CSS2.2 or even draft a specification ourselves. However specification writing is a complicated process that requires specialist skills, so is best left to the experts.

I’ve heard that reaction inside the CSS working group is mixed, but with a closed internal mailing list and little in the way of external communication, it is very difficult to tell what they are thinking. They recently launched a new blog to help improve communication, but the first post doesn’t fill me with confidence.

The argument I always hear from the W3C is, “if you want to get involved, you should join one of our public mailing lists”. However this seems more like an avoidance strategy than a real desire to communicate. The W3C must know that signing up to a high traffic technical mailing list provides just enough of a barrier to entry to put the majority of people off. I actually joined their CSS mailing list a few years back, but quickly left after every suggestion I made was brushed off with instructions to check the archive or read a three year old thread.

Mailing lists may still be popular amongst academia, but I think it shows a distinct lack of understanding about how people use the web these days. Rather than being critical about people posting their thoughts to their blogs, if the CSS working group really want to elicit feedback they should embrace the developer community. Do what the WHATWG does and set up watchlists for common terms like CSS3 or CSS2.2, post regularly to their blog and set up an official wiki. If the CSS working group really want feedback, they need to start by offering more transparency and make it easier for people to contribute.

Posted at June 17, 2007 6:19 PM

Comments

Matt Wilcox said on June 17, 2007 7:52 PM

I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said, and the only thing I’ve got to add to it is an emphasis of your last point. I’m a web developer, and I’ve been using the internet for many years - but I’ve no experience at all with mailing lists. They look and feel archaic, they are hard to track, and they are (from my experience trying to use the HTML5 group after joining) almost impossible to actually use.

I would pay good money to see the use of a forum, which has a nice search feature, threading, and is understood by everyone without the need to configure mail clients and jump through hoops that are not even properly set out or explained.

Marko said on June 17, 2007 8:07 PM

Good article with lots of interesting points. My personal view is that W3C has mostly moved on and that front-end technologies are not seen as an open problem. One of these days I might even write a line or two about this on my own blog.

As mailing lists go, I seem to be an almost old fart with more than a decade of email use behind me. Unsurprisingly I like mailing lists even though I find most mail web archives unusable. Then again, I also think email has never achieved its potential and Gmail is sadly just a kick in right direction before its regretable death.

Nate Klaiber said on June 17, 2007 8:56 PM

Mailing lists may still be popular amongst academia, but I think it shows a distinct lack of understanding about how people use the web these days.

Amen. However, I think the same is true for other organizations. They all point to the mailing list to get involved. The mailing list is more confusion than it is help. I have joined WHATWG, W3C, and Microformats - all of which I eventually unsubscribed because it all just feels so archaic and identity/discussions get lost (and context).

Perry said on June 18, 2007 12:10 AM

You wrote “the WHAT working group was open to the views of the community”

Ha! Couldn’t be further from the truth. If you express any view on the mailing list that differs from the Hixie doctrine, you will be treated as a heretic. Roger also wrote about the same people who are also on the HTML WG. See ” The attitude problem” here:

http://www.456bereastreet.com/archive/200705/another_look_at_html_5/

XHTML2 may not be the right path but neither is HTML5. W3C has dug a big hole for themselves and they may not be able to dig themselves out. Maybe it’s time for new leadership at W3C?

Chris Hunt said on June 18, 2007 8:42 AM

Unless I’m missing something crucial it should be as simple as transposing these new features into the completed CSS2.1 spec
One crucial thing that you’re missing is that the CSS2.1 spec isn’t completed. It’s still just a working draft. One crucial thing that I’m missing is why that should be the case after five years. Hopefully they’ll start to get a move on, now that the flak hitherto directed on the tardiness of IE development is being turned on the W3C.

If they start using something more 21st century than an email list (hey guys, ever heard of a forum?), I might even be able to help out myself.

Andy Budd said on June 18, 2007 10:22 AM

From what I understand CSS2.1 was originally supposed to be an errata, focusing on the parts of CSS2 the browsers implemented, ditching some irrelevant features, and fixing a few bugs. Once they started down that path they realised that there was a lot wrong with the original spec, and decided to do a complete rewrite. CSS2.1 is the working groups current priority, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be finished soon. Once this is done, it should be relatively trivial to add the already implemented CSS3 features, as these should have been well documented.

Anne van Kesteren said on June 19, 2007 7:36 PM

There are some other problems that keep CSS 2.1 from finishing by the way: 1) lots of detailed testcases and 2) browsers that pass them all. The idea is that once CSS 2.1 is finished it is actually implemented completely by at least two browser vendors in the same way.

New specifications aimed at browser vendors are now made in this way. It ensures that when the specification is done, it can be used and can probably be used way before the specification is completely done.

karl dubost, w3c said on June 20, 2007 3:09 AM

Hi Andy,

I have posted recently on the QA weblog a few articles on how to participate to W3C efforts without being a Member.

There are many ways. In your previous article about HTML 5, I even propose you a concrete task in your comments, but you didn’t reply unfortunately.

The problem is not that much, that you can’t participate. The problem is each time we are asking concrete participation, such as practical work done, people have better things to do. I do understand that volunteer efforts take time and commitment. But saying that you can’t participate, when it is possible and at the same time, not doing it when the door is opened, seems a bit unfair :)

So what would we be good for the community as large is when there is a reproach made, to propose a practical work to be done and to help doing it. We will move forward a lot faster and we will all benefit.

Jermayn Parker said on June 20, 2007 3:39 AM

I have come in fairly late with the different working groups and all that but some how with the limit knowledge I do have, I do not think any new CSS3 or new HTML5/ XHTML will ever happen.

If it does, I think it may cause a big mess and do more damage than good.

karl dubost, w3c said on June 20, 2007 3:56 AM

Jermayn Parker. Most of what is in the spec of HTML 5 is already implemented. It is a specification which mostly define what browsers actually do.

There are indeed a few new elements and APIs but the core of HTML 5 is fixing HTML 4.01 to be in accordance with what is done by browsers.

Andy Budd said on June 20, 2007 3:36 PM

Hi Karl,

I have to admit that comments like this and your previous one really make me mad, and only help demonstrate the gulf between the W3C and the wider developer community.

There is a big difference between criticising an organisation and offering to do their work for them. My point isn’t that you can’t get involved, it’s that you don’t make it easy for people to get involved the way they want. I have no skill or interest in Q&A, and have neither the time or inclination to start writing browser test cases. Does that make my opinions or ideas any less valid? I personally don’t think it does!

Your comments are basically implying that unless I and the other members of the web developer community can be used as a development resource, you’re not really interested in engaging with us. It’s an absurd argument and similar to somebody like Microsoft implying that you don’t have the right to criticise IE unless you help them fix the bugs first. I really detest this “put up or shut up” attitude, particularly as I feel I’ve done my bit for web standards over years.

It’s exactly this type of attitude I was complaining about on the new CSSWG blog. Either you do things the W3C way, or we’re not interested. It’s very easy attitude to take, it’s just not a particularly fair or productive one. Rather than simply throwing peoples comments back in their face with a checklist of tasks for them to do, I would strongly recommend you start listening to peoples feedback and taking their concerns onboard. Otherwise you will only help speed your own demise as you force people to engage with other organisations that are willing to listen.

karl dubost, w3c said on June 20, 2007 9:43 PM

Hehe. You misunderstood what I was saying. We are listening. The set up of the HTML WG has been done, for example, specifically, because it was a request from the community to promote a large participation.

A few years ago, the open source community really pushed for having RF on all standards and then it made a huge debate and the patent policy has evolved to help guarantee this.

We are constantly listening. If we were not, I would not be here. On the other side, it is not about collecting each individual comments and saying do this and do that. I’m pretty sure you will agree with this, as in it is a collective work. Like any organizations, people are working together on the way they should work and advance.

For example, I know Molly for a very long time, Jeffrey as well, I had face to face discussions with them. I have never been closed to suggestions, always put in balance some of the things, that they were said. Sometimes gave more elements to say “this is possible to do”, “that is unlikely because of blah…”

So listening feedback, we do. I didn’t say in the other comment “participate or shut up”. I said something on the line that it is frustrating as a person to open doors, and have people continuing to express their disagreement.

Constructive feedback takes time and is heard to do. Sometimes there is also misunderstandings on the nature of the feedback, on both sides. The proposal I made the other day was a design proposal, not test cases writing ;) And I do respect a lot all of the community efforts done over the years.

I’m reading things on weblogs, trying to reply, asking more details (such as Molly at XTech) on what are the practical things, we can do for this or that.

For example, on the QA Weblog, my call for Web professionals is specifically because Roger and Robert had expressed very strong opinions about the language. Not the first time, I see them. Though there is another part of the community who thinks it should not be the way they say. It’s why I invited more persons to review and express their concerns. Because if one side of the community is really strong and says this really matters for us, even better making a technical OR business argument for it, then we can modify things or we can trying to find flexibility that will satisfy both.

See http://www.w3.org/QA/2007/06/html5-call-to-web-professionals.html

Frictions, discussions, frictions again and then sometimes compromises. In fact, I have a tendency to believe that W3C exists because of the frictions. If everything was perfect, we would not need it somehow.

Fantasai posts were fantastic and giving an interesting overview on the CSS WG. The CSS blog, hmm no, the CSS article ;) you are complaining about is saying that it is difficult to track everything on other venues. I do it for quite a few technologies. It takes a lot of times to do. Sometimes some people will think that would be better to do actual work, but personally I believe that it is important. I will talk with Bert Bos about it, I mean the CSS weblog.

Andrew said on June 27, 2007 10:54 PM

As someone who just left the HTML5 WG I’d be interested to see the amount of people joining vs. leaving. I really don’t have a lot of time to donate but what time I had was mainly spent reading bickering emails. I agree mailing lists do not represent the best communication method. One of Ian H’s recent postings to the list entitled “How to productively contribute” highlights the current state of participation.

I feel this group means well but it will ultimately be the “web celebrities” with the large web communities in their corner that move the browser makers forward.

fantasai said on June 29, 2007 3:46 AM

The suggestions to post to www-style aren’t avoidance tactics: that’s where we take in feedback. Outdated or not mailing lists are how we get work done. (You’ll see similar trends in the Mozilla project, where most serious threaded discussion happens on Usenet and chat goes through IRC.) If you want to get seriously involved, you seriously have to join the mailing list. That said, I understand it’s not an easy place for web designers to post ideas. It’s geared towards technical discussion of specs, and it’s very good for that, but not for what you want from it.

The working group is not critical of people posting ideas on their weblogs, we’re just pointing out that if someone doesn’t post a pointer to those ideas somewhere where we are sure to see it, it has a high chance of going nowhere. If you can suggest a solution to this problem that doesn’t require WG members to constantly surf the blogosphere, I’m all ears. I’d like to aggregate all CSSWG-targetted blog posts together with the CSSWG blog somehow, but I’m not yet aware of any technical solution that makes this possible. (Let me know if you come up with any.)

One of the main problems I’ve noticed wrt taking in feedback is that the CSS WG often don’t have a context to put it in. For example, if someone suggests a new feature for CSS3, but we don’t have an editor working on that spec right now who is responding to such feedback, nothing happens. The idea stays in the mailing list archives, lost unless later someone goes digging and pulls it up at the appropriate time. Forums and weblogs won’t solve this problem, but a wiki can. This is why I want us to start using one, so that we have a place to record, publish, and refine ideas we support until there’s a spec to put them in. We could, for example, archive a summary of the various proposals for a parent selector along with the reason it hasn’t found its way into any spec: implementors have said it’s too costly to implement.

Even without a wiki, though, we are getting better at this. Contrary to the impression Hixie tries to give by counting all the totally inactive members on our membership roster, all active members of the CSS WG are subscribed to www-style, and earlier this year (2007Q1) we put “current email topics” on the weekly telecon agenda to review the past week’s discussions on www-style and on our internal mailing list.

As far as the first blog post goes, you have to understand that this is pretty much Bert’s first blog post ever. Not all members of the CSS WG are on top of the latest trends in internet communication: they aren’t web designers, they work on software for industry, and although that world was the first to use Ethernet and email, it hasn’t caught up with the Web’s vanguard. I still haven’t quite updated to the feed-driven weblogging world, and I think Bert sees weblogs more as a contraption for the posting of academic articles rather than the casual discussion engine it’s supposed to be used as. It will take awhile before the CSS Working Group groks the new communication medium, so have some patience, offer some guidance, encourage any positive trends, and don’t judge too soon. Changes that involve a perception shift like this don’t magically work overnight.

Rupak Ganguly said on July 3, 2007 4:25 PM

I did not find any post about your An Event Apart presentation, so just chose this post to comment. I wrote an elaborate post about the event, if you care to read…
http://developershelf.blogspot.com/2007/06/event-apart-seattle-2007-day-1.html

Michael Montgomery said on July 9, 2007 6:55 PM

“I’d like to aggregate all CSSWG-targetted blog posts together with the CSSWG blog somehow, but I’m not yet aware of any technical solution that makes this possible.”

Technorati API?

fantasai said on July 25, 2007 5:57 AM

@Michael Against which tags/terms/urls? “CSS” is too broad.

Phil Benson said on July 31, 2007 10:53 AM

I’d have to disagree with your comment about web standards being widely understood and used now: only in the rarified world of @media attendees is this true. As someone who’s interviewing for a web developer position at the moment, the number of web developers / webmasters that I’m interviewing, people that have been holding down jobs in this field who can’t answer the question “In CSS, what is specificity and how is it used”, or even “What are the ol and ul tags and what is the difference between them” is terrifying. They mention the W3C and web standards as if just knowing the words means they are web developers. It’s very, very depressing…