Web standards on the edge

Some aren't defined enough, and some may never be

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"The W3C process seeks a balance between speed of progress and fairness in listening to all voices," says Le Hegaret, adding that the working groups face trade-offs when timelines are shortened.

But some worry that delays could tempt browser vendors to once again veer from the standards path. "Lengthy processes don't benefit this kind of innovation," says Arun Ranganathan, standards evangelist at Mozilla Corp.

It has also made attaining a truly final version of a standard difficult -- and that has some developers frustrated. "We don't even have a perfect implementation of CSS 2.1 yet," Featherstone says. Features that he needs are still missing from the specification, such as a way to create rounded borders in style sheets.

Eric Meyer, a prominent Web developer, author and principal at Complex Spiral Consulting, says he'd like to be able to use nonrectangular shapes in layouts. "Instead of a div [tag] creating a rectangle, I'd like to have it create a hexagon. Or I'd like to define an L-shape so the top part of an article could go full width then go to one column."

"There's some frustration that we don't have the tools that we need," Featherstone says.

Meanwhile, the W3C is already well into the standards process for CSS 3, which has several modules in the Candidate Recommendation stage (it still must move forward to become a Proposed Recommendation before being approved as a final W3C Recommendation).

But there's a difference between adding new features, which are going into CSS 3, and testing and deploying the already specified features in CSS 2.1, says Le Hegaret.

One major roadblock to finishing CSS 2.1 is the test suite that still needs to be finished. That's a big job. One member submitted about 3,000 tests for CSS 2.1 in August. The group could move the deadline up, but there's a trade-off: "Should the group try to finish sooner, or have more implementation support -- and a better specification -- even if that takes longer?" The group hopes to have the CSS 2.1 specification completely finished in 2009, Le Hegaret says.

Freelance Web developer and author Peter-Paul Koch, who is known for his publication of browser compatibility tables at Quirksmode.org, says the W3C is doing a better job moving out of its ivory tower and becoming more attuned to real-world needs. But it wasn't always that way. For example, when W3C specifications were vague as to how to embed a plug-in into a Web page, the W3C specified that developers use the object tag. But most browsers already supported the HTML embed tag instead.

That didn't make much difference to the browser user, but it created a major dustup in the Web styles community. Today, it is expected that Web sites will use both. "This was an example of the W3C not paying attention to what's happening in the real world," says Le Hegaret. That's something that the W3C has strived to remedy as work on CSS 2.1, CSS 3 and HTML 5 continues.

With so much of the browser world using open source, Ranganathan says he has been pushing the W3C to adjust to the open-source community's more open, collaborative model. Working groups have traditionally been closed and emphasized face-to-face meetings. "Now the Web Apps working group and the HTML 5 working group conduct themselves in the open [and] the public can comment on the spec," he says. "That's a change in the modus operandi."

Next: Image gallery: Broken browsers in action


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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