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The internet, believe it or not, is a fiendishly complicated system. With millions of different entities, all with their own agenda, it is nothing short of a small miracle that they all play nicely together. So how is it all held together and who ensures that we won't end up with a digital Tower of Babel? And can we guarantee that our digital content of today will be accessible to everyone today and in the future?
What are standards? When we drive a car we are accepting and using a set of standards that have evolved since the turn of the century to ensure safety, convenience and fair access for all users of the road system. Some of these standards are globally accepted (for instance a road is made from tarmac and wheels are made from rubber) whilst others vary from country to country (for example if we drive on the left or the right). The practical upshot of these standards is that a car designed and built for use in one country can be safely used in another (possibly with a little bit of inconvenience).
Technical and Social standards In general we can divide standards into two broad groupings: infrastructural and social. Infrastructural standards concern themselves with the practical issues involved in building the system whereas social standards relate to the use of the system. Sticking with the road metaphor the infrastructural standards concern themselves with the technicalities of road building and car manufacture whilst the Highway Code neatly represents the social standards. As a rule infrastructural standards are easier to agree upon as their needs are more clearly defined and change more slowly but on the other hand social standards are much more difficult to pin down as they cannot be deduced by clever thinking - they have to evolve over time in response to problems encountered during normal use.
What has all this got to do with the web? Well the internet is a transport mechanism just like the road system only the internet carries information from A to B rather than things. It too has underlying infrastructural standards which, like the roads, are driven by the technicalities of getting stuff from one place to another. These standards, maintained by a body called the Internet Engineering TaskForce (IETF), are as globally accepted as the manufacture of roads and cars. In fact you directly refer to this every time that you enter a web address into your browser; the http:// at the beginning stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol - a standard designed for sending and receiving linked textual information. It is only because every software manufacturer in the world conforms to this standard and hundreds of others like it that we have a world wide web at all.
Social standards on the web Founded by the father of the web, Tim Berners-Lee and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the body responsible for maintaining social standards on the web.
Social standards for the road system are relatively simple compared to the nightmare that unfolds when you try and devise procedures to represent and display visual information. All of the social standards for the road system including speed limits, parking restrictions, lane discipline etc can be contained within a 100 page booklet that is easily readable by most people. Since it was founded in October 1994 the W3C has produced over fifty deeply technical specifications and it still isn't even close to finishing its job.
Can't we just make our own? Two or three years back when not one of the major browser manufacturers was conforming to W3C standards, each invented their own flavour of HTML (the language used to describe web pages). As a result web developers had a really hard time of it as they often had to write several different versions of the same content in order to get it to display correctly on everyone's computer. Now that Microsoft and Netscape as well as the other players are making a big push towards compliance, not only is the job of the web developer made considerably easier but the users get a more coherent and integrated experience when browsing the web.
Accessibility Widespread use of standards (or even enforced use as in the Highway Code) has another important benefit that is no less important and is almost a reason on its own to conform. A well designed standard will promote access to the system to as wide an audience as possible. Consider disabled drivers - without the provision of disabled parking spaces and the standard that you shouldn't park in them unless you have an orange badge, the road system would be much less accessible to people with physical difficulties. Likewise the W3C standards all derive some input from the Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI) that ensures that all web content will be accessible by those with sight problems or motor-control difficulties. On a practical level this involves, amongst other things, providing a textual alternative to all images, ensuring that the site will work with a screen-reader (which is a program that can speak words for blind users) and is easy to navigate without the use of a mouse.
You can check your site for W3C-WAI compliance at http://valet.webthing.com/access/online.html.
Persistence Already we are finding the problem of reading some of our older digital data difficult. Ancient, creaking mainframes with large amounts of tape storage are now all but extinct yet there still exists the need to read some of the information stored by those systems. If that system conformed to a well known standard then there is every chance that the data can be read by obtaining a copy of the standard and applying its rules to your tapes. However if the system was custom built with no standards in place at all, and the original system no longer exists then you have increased the difficulty of the problem by several orders of magnitude. The moral here is that conforming to standards not only guarantees far-reaching accessibility for your data today, but in the future as well.
As some form of W3C-WAI compliance is now a legal responsibility in the UK (see http://www.web-access.org.uk/) as well as much of the rest of the world, the need for adopting standards has never been more pressing.
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