Designing With Web Standards, Third Edition

Nov 16, 2009

As used by Jeffrey Zeldman and co-author Ethan Marcotte, the term “web standards” is a catchphrase that refers to writing web pages using, as a basis, a group of free and open technical specifications. The core specs being HTML, CSS, and Java­Script. Think of them as the three legs of a tripod upon which all else rests. In no way futuristic, this has already happened. HTML, CSS, and Java­Script are at the heart of publishing in the 21st century. DWWS3 is largely about authoring with these and other related specs in smart and efficient ways that could, more simply and accurately, be labeled best practice. The first edition of DWWS in 2003 was in large part a work of advocacy. But six Internet years have passed and today it’s main­stream. As the link says, Required Reading.

Finding The Cost Of Freedom

I’m a New York City kid raised in Brooklyn. When I was small, I used to wait out on the stoop for my Dad to come home from work. The first thing he did was check the mailbox. And I remember a day when the mail contained his yearly income tax statement. Now, paying taxes is fodder for many a sitcom joke, so even as a little kid I knew people liked to complain about taxes. But my Dad had a more accepting, even appreciative attitude. I asked him how he felt about it and he said, “It’s just the price of being of being an American, that’s all.” My Dad, a child of the Great Depression, son of immigrant parents, and a Jew, felt that whatever the tax, it was more than a fair bargain for his own personal slice of the American dream.

People who come to web design from backgrounds in print – where the physical size of the page is known ahead of time, and where precise, physical, “optical” sizes rule, and where 550 years of technological development lend stability and certainty to the end result – are often shocked by the lack of precision and uniformity that you have to deal with in web design. Likewise shocked are programmers who are used to a black and white world where the code is either error-free and compilable, or not. And who are used to writing installable programs with access to features of the operating system that web pages don’t have.
For these folks, the guesswork and workarounds and accommodations of web design seem insane. In the face of this uncertainty and unpredictability they ask, “Why is it like this? Why?”

Because there is no central authority – like Microsoft – to dictate what is “correct” or “incorrect”, that’s why. A consensus must be reached and that takes time. And because we are moving, today, through a transitional corridor, that’s why. We’re going to get it wrong or almost right for awhile before we get it quite right. That’s one of the reasons I write this blog.

I wasn’t always convinced, but I am now, that precision and predictability in web design will come in time. One of the reasons is the perceptible change in mood since the first edition of Zeldman’s book was published in 2003. In the battle for the hearts and minds of web authors, standards have won. The idea that the on-ramp to the information superhighway should remain free and clear of the encumbrances of proprietary technology – copyrights, patents, and so forth – has not only won, but in the minds of young developers, it’s a given. Twenty years ago, the default was having to pay a license fee and free was unusual. Today, the default is free and paying for a license, the excep­tion. Developers fresh out of college have trouble even comprehending any credo other than “share and share alike”.
It took a few governmental smacks upside the head to achieve it, but even within Microsoft – with regards to the core of Internet Explorer, at least – I believe the idea of keeping browser technology a commercial no-fly zone has finally won out.

And so, I look upon the current need for hacks and workarounds and forking and sniffing and object detection the way my Dad did paying income taxes: it’s the price of freedom, and of the urgent need to keep the Internet as free and open to all as it can be.
It’s a price I have to pay right now, as an author, for my slice of opportunity.

Jeffrey Zeldman, Ethan Marcotte, good luck with the book.

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