Setting the Standard

The web is not yet 15 years old, so it's pretty easy to take any couple of years during that period of time and just be stunned at the pace of development and innovation that you see before you. Not always uniform or especially well-considered, but the sheer speed and creativity at every point from day one until now is mind-boggling. Of course, saying so is pretty much a cliché at this point.

The web is not yet 15 years old, so it's pretty easy to take any couple of years during that period of time and just be stunned at the pace of development and innovation that you see before you.

Not always uniform or especially well-considered, but the sheer speed and creativity at every point from day one until now is mind-boggling. Of course, saying so is pretty much a cliché at this point.

But beyond the obvious development that we've seen for as long as we've been looking, the last couple of years, in particular, have seen us reach a turning point that has fundamentally changed the nature of the web in less obvious ways.

A lot of it has to do with standards. Open standards describing how things should work and work with each other are important in any technology. Without them there can be no common ground on which to build, and thus no progress. The web is as in need of standards as any other large-scale technological endeavour. But it has only been recently that both the standards themselves and the recognition of their importance have matured and become widely accepted.

You may have heard the phrase "Web Standards". It is a catch-all term for the various technical specifications that describe the web's underlying technologies, such as HTML, CSS and XML. But it also describes an approach to designing and developing websites that embrace these standards in the context of a long-term view of where the web is going.

Ready, steady…

Of course, standards don't really mean much if they aren't available to use, so one of the most important changes that has happened in the last few years is the attitude of web browser makers to the standards. We're in a new browser conflict! But unlike the late 90s war between Microsoft and Netscape, which was about market domination of proprietary technology, this time it's more of a healthy race where web developers and web users are the winners.

The main focus and measure of browser development today is Web Standards-compliance and the open-source nature of much of the underlying technology is producing really spectacular results. New versions of browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome are being released every few months, packing in a multitude of new features specified in the standards. Even Microsoft, the perennial foot-dragger when it comes to web browser development, has realized it can't ignore open standards any longer if it wants to stay relevant.

The pace of innovation is faster now than it's ever been, because designers and developers no longer have to hedge their bets on one of several not-quite-the-same browser platforms. Open Web Standards have finally won.

Playtime is over

I've been a web interface developer for five years and in that time I've become a passionate believer in the importance of Web Standards. It's actually hard for me to consider how it must have been before these standards were available. I was around to experience the web back then, when it first appeared in the early 1990s, but strictly from an end-user's point of view. There are obviously big differences in the limits of web graphic and user experience design between then and now, and just in terms of the amount of what's available and what can be done with it. But looking back, one of the biggest differences to me is that the web is now important. Really important. It has gone from being optional to being more-or-less vital to the way we live. That's quite a scary thought when you consider the almost accidental nature of its birth and the speed of its growth.

The web is now a very serious thing indeed and that fact, I think, is perhaps the most important thing to happen in the last couple of years, because it means that we, as the people who produce the web, have to be equally serious about how we do it.

When I say I've been a web developer for nearly five years, I'm deliberately leaving out something that I'd be otherwise tempted to include in that job title: the word "professional". Yes, I make my living doing what I do, and am immensely grateful for that, because I also happen to love doing it. But, being honest, I couldn't really say that I've been a professional for all that time, mostly because the complete description of what constitutes professional web development doesn't fully exist yet.

The description is being written, though, because we have standards around which genuine consensus can be built, and a professional web development industry worthy of the name has to do this as a matter of urgency.

Real People care about Good/Bad

Part of the seriousness I mentioned before comes in the form of the responsibility we have as web professionals to create standards of quality. We know how the web should work and how we should build it. The Standards tell us how. They define what the medium of the web is. They define what "quality" on the web looks like, too. And quality is what it is really all about.

If my phone can't connect to the network because it doesn't meet the standards set for data communication, or if the plane I'm hoping to fly in can't get off the runway because the wings don't meet the standards of aeronautical engineering, I don't think of my experience of the phone or the plane as "failing to comply with the technical standards". It's simply a bad experience and the technology giving me the experience is bad quality. I'll want my money back and chances are I won't be returning in the future.

There are high-quality ways of making things and there are low-quality ways of making things, as much on the web as anywhere else, and if we don't acknowledge the differences we aren't being professional. Let me illustrate this point by focusing on one particular area of the interface development work I have responsibility for: Accessibility.

Accessibility is not a feature

Accessibility, simply put, is allowing as many people access to as much of the web experience as possible. To most people it means access for people with disabilities who perhaps require assistive technologies to let them use the web, and it's true that this is a major part of what accessibility can mean in day-to-day development work. But it actually has much more fundamental and wide-ranging implications than that. The web has become a fluid medium (but then, it was always meant to be a fluid medium). It can be accessed in a hundred different ways on a hundred different devices. The content on the web can be manipulated by software in thousands of different ways before it ever reaches humans eyes, ears or fingertips.

To create accessible web content and experiences is to acknowledge this fluidity as something fundamental to the nature of the web. Content needs to be accessible to everything that wants to use it. If you don't make that acknowledgment and consider accessibility as not just a nice-to-have feature, but a fundamental and vital part of what you are building, then I would argue that you aren't creating the minimum standard required for a web experience of professional quality and thus can't really call yourself a professional.

Accessibility is probably the area most in need of this attitude adjustment, but I've found that just about all the aspects of the web development process that I consider as part of my job (e.g. valid coding standards, the use of semantic markup, usability, etc.) require a similar level of thought and commitment applied to them.

Does that sound a bit uncompromising? I certainly hope so. That's what being part of a professional industry is all about. To judge and have other people judge what you do in terms of a universal standard of quality and not compromise in reaching that standard. From here on out no-one should expect anything less from the web.