Keep to Open Standards

The following is no overstatement: The Internet was founded and grows upon the concept of open standards.

Moreover, when the Web, a subset of the Internet, was designed, its designer’s intentions were that all content on the Web use the same standards so that all that content could be accessed by anyone on Web.

Whenever someone designs a site only for certain versions of browser software or for only one type of device or prioritizes graphical design over accessibility, that someone is perverting the intent of the Internet, limiting the Internet’s and their own content’s options for growth, and is perhaps inadvertently removing their content from more widespread access and usage.

A discussion is underway on the Online News listserv about what standards, if any, should be used by media Web sites. We like the wisdom discussed by Aaron Schaap:

    It’s not about coding your site to work in a certain browser – it’s about coding it to work (correctly) … it’s about being a professional and not just whipping things together to only work for 2 browsers.
    To sum up – Steve [Yelvington of Morris Digital Works] is correct (although he didn’t mean to be) in saying “”We don’t much care about Opera.” – you shouldn’t care much for just Opera, just code it correctly and information will be available to everything.

Indeed, why would anyone intentionally code in ways that don’t work with all contemporary browsers, including Opera, which is one of the very few standards-compliant browsers? We find that particularly aggravating because we do half of our browsing from an office desktop using Opera (which for years has allowed us to prevent pop-up or pop-under ads and chose from which sites we accept third-party cookies) and the other half of our time traveling and using either Opera on my laptop PC or Internet Explorer on our GPRS mobile digital assistant (MDA).

We thus have trouble accessing some sites (including the Morris DigitalWorks sites) because those sites use non-standard markup code.

Another bad case is Expedia.com. Although that site was founded by Microsoft (it’s now owned by Barry Diller), it has become so specific about designing its pages only certain desktop browser softwares, that the site is no longer accessible from contemporary versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer on Pocket PCs. Guess how useful that makes Expedia.com when you’re traveling and you need to find a new flight!

Ditto sites that heavily use server-side Java for pull-down menus or use other kludges. Have their designers ever tried accessing those sites from a MDA or Web-equipped mobile phone (hey, there’s already 100 million of those in use worldwide)? Those sites’ pull-down menus either don’t appear or don’t work, which will make for great use in the wireless Web era we’re entering.

Moreover, what happens in the future to today’s non-standard tags? If your site today uses non-standard markups aimed at only specific browser software versions, how easy will it be for you to migrate that content in the future? (Can anyone spell SyQuest or NAPLS?)

The choice of which browsing software to use, on which device, should be the consumer’s and not the designer’s. If designers were to use standard coding, there wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Another participant in the Online News discussion asked:

    Have you considered Macromedia Flash for serving up streaming video? From what I have seen of it the results are extremely good, and the plugin has a very high penetration. The plugin is also available for platforms such as Linux which do not have support for WMV.

The Flash plug-in has more than 85% penetration in the browser market, but an underlying assumption in the question we quote is that desktop PC or laptop PC browsers are the only way that consumers should access this online content. That assumption isn’t true and, furthermore, is why standards are meant to be cross-platform.

For an example: More consumers initially access NYTimes.com content each day via HTML e-mail than through browser software — nearly 3.7 million via e-mail versus 1.5 million via Web browsing (note: (to calculate NYTime.com’s daily visitors to the Web, multiply unique monthly users times average visitor’s monthly visitation frequency and then divide by days in month.) Because Flash is neither a World Wide Web Consortium nor an Internet Engineering Task Force standard nor compliant, but a kludge many Web designers use to circumvent HTML’s graphical inadequacies, it isn’t included across even major software manufacturers’ product lines. Use of the Flash plug-in might be widespread in Microsoft’s and Netscape’s browser software, but neither Microsoft nor Netscape nor Macromedia itself offer plug-in for Microsoft’s or Netscape’s or AOL’s or Lotus/IBM’s or Qualcomm’s (Eudora) e-mail software. Subscribe to HTML e-mail delivery of a Flash-embedded Web page and you’re out of luck.

Ditto trying to view a Flash-embedded Web page on PDAs, MDAs, and Web-equipped mobile phones, or a the growing number of Internet devices. All because Flash is non-standard.

Hey, don’t get us wrong! Flash would be great or would be a standard if consumers were like Web site designers, who sit on the posteriors and browse from desktops PCs all day. But that’s not real life. (Nor are consumers like journalism professors, which is why the concept of teaching ‘Flash journalism’ might sound great within academia but needs a reality check. Anyone for teaching ‘Animated GIF journalism’?)

As Aaron Schaap noted, if sites are instead designed according to standard code — not designed for only certain manufacturers’ browsers nor for use of non-standard software — then anyone, anywhere, with any device can access that site’s content.

When the Web was designed, its designer’s intentions were that all content on the Web could be accessed by all people on Web. When you prioritize graphical design above accessibility or when you design for only one software version or only one platform, you are perverting that intent and limiting your options in the future.

4 thoughts on “Keep to Open Standards

  1. But what CAN we use for streaming video? RealPlayer is a dire, dire piece of software and a proprietary format. Windows Media is exactly that – Windows media (a plugin does exist for OS X but users of other operating systems can forget about it). QuickTime insists on asking you to “Register Later”. I despise Flash for text content as much as anyone, but for video it loks like it bould be the best of a bad bunch.

  2. This summer I had the opportunity to visit the sites of a dozen trade magazine publishers. I was stunned how many of their sites were simply unreadable on my Mac.

    Even if you decide that you’re not going to bend over backwards to accomodate those of us with Macs, I don’t understand how they could justify the added expense of the the Javascript gimcrack that made their sites less usable and less accessible to people with the current version of Windows and its browser.

    But, then, their magazines are ugly, too.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with this article. But follow the money, as they say. The REAL question is: “How do we stop ‘proprietary’ ownership of the web?”. Obviously Redmond has claimed (and botched) it for the moment, Macromedia is trying EVERY day with their ever-changing proprietary plug-in technology, and the REAL owners (a non-commercial organization) haven’t got the teeth to enforce any standards.

    And standards. What are ‘standards’ anyhow? In the pro-design world, we know that a .JPEG is a .JPEG is a .JPEG. And you can make them on Photoshop ‘anyversion’ that ‘anyversion’ can open. Or any image editor, for that matter, free or otherwise. The ‘money-maker’ for Adobe, in this case, is in the authorware. Can the same be said for, say, the proprietary PDF format? Nope. It SHOULD be. Adobe promotes it like it is. For instance, Acrobat Reader 3 (that some people STILL have) won’t open a PDF made in Acrobat 5. Hmmmm. Some ‘standard’. They forgot to make it backward compatible. Why? Bloatware with useless-for-most ‘gadgets’ in the authorware, their money-maker, but ‘ownership of the web’ comes in when PDF is the del-facto standard. But now the ‘standard’ keeps changing?!! Hmmm.

    The same is true with Flash. Plain rudeness prevails at some sites that require Flash 6, (or any version a user doesn’t have/or want) and yet Macromedia has just released Flash 7 player! Gimme a break here! Have we forgot about ‘opt-in’?. Like the article says ‘ let’s remember real-life here’. Want an answer to this one? Recently, Apple’s site had what appeared to be a very sharp typographical Flash animation announcing their new G5. Was it? Nope. It was a very sophisticated animated GIF made (likely) from a Flash file. I still have it. (Track me down and I’ll email it to you) Very, very cool -and totally open accessable! The answer is: use the new authorware to create standard, viewable animations. That makes sense to me, yes?

    Anyhow, I’m into REAL standards, like the Life magazine on my side table from 1941 doesn’t require a ‘special viewer’ – that would be now obsolete – to read. You see, all the “cool” development in the print world is behind the scenes. The end user is never affected. Gadgets are extremely rare, save for some oddball 3-D comic or something (which usually provides the glasses). We are free in this print environment to use any pro-software to create our expression, yet still have to adhere to strict standards. ie. RGB won’t print! The standards evolve very gradually. Yet, you can still RIP a 1996 Quark 3.3 file! You can even STILL send in assembly boards!!

    Purely I think where we are presently at is a case of ‘boys playing with their NEW toys’ — in a very self-absorbed manner. Well, it’s time to grow up . . . and it’s long overdue, I say.

    How to fix the problem? Well, let’s give the W3C.org some actual teeth. Let’s campaign to ignore Opera, Netscape, Explorer, etc and promote ONLY W3C standards. You’re right, designers shouldn’t be making ‘browser’ decisions, users should. Blow off the animations for gratuitous purposes, ’cause only kiddies are mezmorized by these anyhow (OPT-IN demos, trailers, and the like – OK).

    Personally, I hope this patent infringement ‘schmoze’ costs the complacent AND greedy business community a fortune. Then and only then, MAYBE they’ll wake up and realize the value of ‘standards’, as it will hit them right where they make their decisions. The bottom line. Then we can get on with the business of the REAL web.

    Oi!

    ps. sorry for my aimless rambling — I’m hot as a pistol on this issue!

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