Referees for the Browser Wars

17.08.1998

Top Web designers call for Netscape and Microsoft to fight fair.

The Web Standards Project aims to force Netscape and Microsoft to adhere to the design standards ratified by The World Wide Web Consortium.

With Netscape frantically trying to reinvent itself as something of a cross between a media company and an e-commerce portal, and while Microsoft battles the US Department of Justice and generally goes about expanding its empire on all fronts, it's easy to forget that the browser wars are still rumbling along.

Estimates vary, but all confirm that Microsoft's share of the browser market continues to approach and may soon surpass Netscape's, even as both companies prepare to release their 5.0 versions. For journalists and investors, the competition has made for an exciting horse race, but for Web designers, the browser wars have been hell.

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Every site designers create has to be tested, that is, viewed via the various versions of both browsers, and genuinely thorough designers will also ensure that the site "works" for alternative browsers such as Opera and Lynx.

But the real casualties in the browser wars are caused by the two major players who seemingly arbitrarily introduce features unique to one browser while distorting the functionality of the site when viewed by the other. "Workarounds" have to be created and the site has to be tweaked this way and that until it looks more or less the same through either window.

One new group of Web design pioneers with illustrious backgrounds, thick resumes and shelves of awards has formed a coalition, The Web Standards Project (WSP), to grab the attention of Netscape and Microsoft and collectively yell,"Enough!"

News of the project leaked a few days before the official launch on Monday, August 10. Microsoft was the first of the Big Two to send out friendly feelers to the group, and after word of the project spread throughout the media, Netscape followed. Glenn Davis of Project Cool and a member of the WSP Steering Committee, intends to continue rounding up enough publicity to force Microsoft and Netscape's hand.

It isn't just that the two giants on the field are frustrating designers' efforts to develop universally accessible state-of-the-art Web sites. According to Davis, the extra time spent tweaking for compatibility drives up the cost of development an estimated 25%.

Another Steering Committee member, Jeffrey Zeldman, who created the WSP site, sums up the group's goals.

"We are attempting to pressure Netscape and Microsoft into supporting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards as they pledged they would do over a year ago. By 'standards', we mean the W3C recommendations for HTML, CSS-1, CSS-2, ECMASCRIPT, and the DOM. We don't care if Netscape or Microsoft also invent ten other proprietary technologies or fifty additional non-standard tags. As long as we have a consistent way to do HTML, styles, scripting, and DHTML -- a way that will work in every browser -- we don't care what other options the companies choose to invent."

WSP member Lance Arthur concurs that "the point is not to request any company to stop developing new capabilities into their Web software or to stop using proprietary code that serves a purpose in Web design." After all, "much of what we consider standards now were developed by those two companies. The market judges the success or failure of the proposed code by using it or rejecting it, and the W3C seems inclined to continue incorporating de facto standards that have come about as a result of this market-test method."

Over the weekend leading up to the launch, the WSP site allowed supporters, prompted by the pre-launch press, to join a mailing list hosted by Davis's Project Cool. As these wide open lists all too often go, traffic quickly got out of hand as flame wars over the WSP site design, WSP goals and methods broke out. Davis exercised a quick and firm hand, booting the trouble-makers after a single pert warning, and within hours, the WSP members had regained control of the discussion.

It was Arthur who refocused the attention of the list back to the essential purpose of the group:

"I believe that the point is to get the browser manufacturers to support all current standards as ratified so that if I elect to use CSS it will look the same, it will perform as advertised, no tags are left out and I am free to design without the constraints that non-adherence to standards places on me."

Once WSP goals were cast in such personal terms, the list was back on track. Now, with the support of Opera Software and a slew of favorable news coverage to back them up, the WSP have a bit of leverage as they head into talks with Microsoft and Netscape on just what the two companies can and will do concretely to remedy the mess they've created.

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