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   Re: Offtopic: Web Standards Project

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  • From: "W. Eliot Kimber" <eliot@isogen.com>
  • To: <xml-dev@ic.ac.uk>
  • Date: Sat, 08 Aug 1998 12:02:29 -0500

[NOTE: The following is mostly an incoherent rant that is only marginally
connected to the WSP. Consider it a potential source of comedy relief--no
offence is meant to the WSP or its members--WEK.]

At 11:08 PM 8/7/98 -0400, Frank Boumphrey wrote:
>why did'nt you tell us about this.
>We should all support it.

This looks interesting, and the list of names involved is certainly
impressive, so I take it as a given that there is something significant
here, but I'm wondering just exactly *what* the WSP can actually do to
achieve its mission. Here's what I took to be the relevant info from the
mission statement on the subject Web site:

"Our goal is to support these core standards and encourage browser makers
to do the same, thereby ensuring simple, affordable access to Web
technologies for all."

Realizing that the Web site claims it's not officially open until Monday
(10 Aug 1998), I find it odd that there's nothing about *how* this
organization (or any similar organization) can actually meet this goal.
What power or authority would the WSP (or any similar group) have that the
W3C, as the authority that issues the "standards", does not have? [The W3C
does not make standards, it makes recommendations, but that's a fine
semantic point that seems to be lost on 99.9999% of the populace.]

Is it the intent of the WSP to be a clearing house for user complaints?  In
the absence of good faith on the part of the tool creators, the only
recourse against failure to implement standards is user backlash. I can see
that a user advocacy group could provide some benefit here (the Web
equivalent of Ralph Naders' group?).  But it's not clear what else might be
done or how the WSP could serve in this capacity.

The major vendors have already learned that users will take what they're
given (imagine trying to earn a living in the information management
industry and not use computers that run Microsoft software--it's pretty
hard).  Is it realistic to think that we can change Microsoft's practices? 

Because that's who we're talking about, Microsoft--Netscape, now that
they've seen that standards and openness are their only hope of
differentiation from MS, is on the side of right and good.  What other
vendors do we have to fear? Sun? They've got Java and everything to gain by
it being a standard. Inso? As EBT, they've been good standards players from
the start and have excellent technical resources who know how to do the
right thing and will, I predict, do it (not that they play much outside the
big-industry nitch market in any case).  IBM? They're essentially pure user
and understand the value of standards to themselves and their customers.
Editor vendors? Maybe, but who besides MS has enough market share outside
the core SGML industry to even have an effect?  HP? They're in the same
boat as Sun. Adobe? Maybe, but Adobe has its own de facto standard, PDF,
that nobody, least of all Adobe, seems to care about formally standardizing
(why should they when the US government declared it a standard by requiring
its use for electronic document interchange--yet another monopoly granted
by the government {anyone remember the railroad industry circa 1880}?).
Adobe doesn't make browsers and their SGML/XML editor can't implement the
style standards without being completely rewritten anyway.  Arbortext only
survives on the basis of ADEPT*Editor being as complete as possible an
implementation of the SGML and XML standards (that's why people buy it).
SoftQuad is in the same boat as Arbortext, but with less market share (but
better prospects for producing a low-cost, high-value XML/SGML editor given
their technology base). Corel tries hard and has good channels, but they've
never been able to lever Word out of the way--their SGML support is good
(if not perfect), but has never been marketed effectively.

It seems to me that the real question is: how do we bring pressure to bear
on Microsoft to support and implement standards?  In fairness to MS, I
should note that all the *technical* people I know at Microsoft (which is
an admittedly small sample) have all been consistent in their commitment to
standards and have demonstrated the ability to understand the standards
sufficient to enable correct implementation of them (of course, most of the
people I know I Microsoft I know because of their work on the development
of XML). I'd like to think that this sample is representative.  Certainly
as a developer of technology, Microsoft is capable of doing whatever it
decides to do.  The question is, what will they decide to do and why.
Certainly it is not the technologists that make the business decisions at
Microsoft (if it was, they wouldn't be where they are today [and we
wouldn't be having this discussion because we'd either still be mired in a
swamp of competing and incompatible information system platforms,  already
have true standards-based systems, or still complaining about IBM as the
Big Evil]).

But as a business driven by an imperative to make money, Microsoft has
consistently shown a disdain for standards and the needs of its customers.
It essentially owns the information systems marketplace on PCs, which means
most of the desktops in the world. It has a significant share of the
back-end market (at ISOGEN, most of the people working on workstations use
Microsoft software to do most of their work--what does that tell you?).
Except for Adobe's PDF, Microsoft owns the data formats (and therefore the
data) of most of the world's documents and this doesn't seem to be near to
changing.  Putting RTF or Excel into XML form won't change that situation
much (although it will make it marginally easier to do stuff with an
otherwise proprietary format because you'll be able to apply normal SGML
and XML tools to it, even if you can't get reliable documentation for what
it is you've got).

Steve Newcomb often stresses that standards are contracts between data
owners and users and the creators of tools that support those owners and
users and he's 100% right. Which begs the question: what higher authority
do the signatories of those contracts appeal to do resolve conflicts?
National and international standards have some legal authority as contracts
because they are created by national bodies that can legally and legimately
put the weight of their countries behind them: they can, for example, enact
laws that require the use of certain standards.  The standards created by
ANSI or DIN or ISO have been created by bodies that have some authority
derived from the people governed by the governments that sponsor the
standards authorities.  

The W3C, by contrast, is a consortium of vendors and users. It has no
formal authority. It is not an agent of any government.  It does not
derive, however indirectly, from the will of the people. Therefore, it has
absolutely no leverage by which to coerce or encourage respect for the
recommendations it creates except the persuasive force of whatever
arguments it might make or the degree to which it can influence popular
opinion so as to change consumption habits. But since its members are the
very organizations that need to be convinced to implement these standards,
it's not realistic to expect the W3C to beat hard on its largest member. (I
suppose it could bring civil suits against member companies that failed to
live up to their agreements as consortium members, but who would pay for
the cost of such a suit?  How likely would Microsoft be to remain a W3C
member if the W3C sued it?). 

That leaves only users themselves to demand that vendors do the right
thing. Can the WSP lead that fight?  Can it effect a world-wide boycott of
Internet Explorer?  Can it save us from our own laziness?  I don't know--I
hope so.

If babies were dying or cute fuzzy creatures were going extinct because
browsers weren't implementing HTML 4.0 correctly, I'd have more confidence.
But the only thing that's at stake is our freedom from vendor oppression,
something that few people even seem to realize as a threat and fewer still
have the actual power or will to avoid (what operating system am I running?
what browser do I use? what scheduling program do I manage with? what
programming language do I hack in? do I want to use any of them? No. Do I,
as long as I want to work as an IS consultant who can pick clients that
aren't Unix-only, non-government-contractor shops, have a choice? No.).
People aren't rioting in the streets because there are only two cable
companies in the US or that 90% of all media outlets are owned by four
corporations (or something close to that) or that the number of one-paper
towns has increased dramatically in the last 50 years.  So why should they
care that a single corporation owns 90% of their data (by owning the
definitions of its form and the software they have to use to access and
modify it?)?

So I'm wondering what the true motivation of the WSP is: publicity
generator? counter to the W3C? public action group ala Nader's Raiders? The
Green Peace of the Web? Tax shelter?  It's definitely not clear from the
WSP Web site exactly what it *is* or what it plans to *do*. I'd like to
know more.



<Address HyTime=bibloc>
W. Eliot Kimber, Senior Consulting SGML Engineer
ISOGEN International Corp.
2200 N. Lamar St., Suite 230, Dallas, TX 75202.  214.953.0004

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