Some thinking on proliferating web standards
March 27, 2011
In a comment on an earlier entry, nothings noted:
In thinking about where web standards come from, I think that there are four broad explanations for them. So here is my outsider's two cents:
First, some standards get created because they cover genuinely new things on the web. My example of this (because I am relatively familiar with the area) is syndication feeds; these are a real new capability, something that you couldn't do on the web before them. (People tried and it didn't work too well.)
Next, some standards get created because previous standards were incomplete (or at least are perceived as being incomplete), lacking necessary or at least useful features. The other way to put this is that new versions of standards get made because now people are willing to standardize more. My impression is that this is what has been going on with CSS; every generation of CSS adds more layout options, many of which have already been tried out in various browsers.
Then we have the standards that get created because people feel that a previous standard is the wrong way and this needs to be 'corrected'. A lot of people will point to XHTML as exhibit one for this, given that its goal could be summarized as 'HTML 4.01 but with XML correctness'.
Finally, there is the case where a previous standard was ambiguous (or in need of clarification because it proved open to interpretation in practice) and a new version is needed to fix this. My impression is that this was especially common for the early web standards (certainly this was the fate of many of the early syndication standards); later ones were usually written more carefully and with more precision.
(Of course, actual standards can be a blend of these reasons.)
Out of these different causes of standards, the only one that really makes me grumpy is the third cause. The fourth cause is useful, the first cause generally only matters if people actually turn out to care about the new thing, and the worth of the second cause is rather personal; it depends on whether you like the new features being added or think that the original standard is good enough as it is and doesn't need new bling.
(On a side note, I don't think that the new standards slow down content creation in general by making people who write HTML spend all of their time learning new things. It is still perfectly possible to write 1998 era HTML and have it work just as well as it did in 1998, and people certainly do. To the extent that professionals have to spend more time to learn more stuff to be employable, my cynical view is that they consider it desirable because it's a higher and higher barrier to entry.)
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