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   Re: "Clean Specs"

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  • From: uche.ogbuji@fourthought.com
  • To: Tim Bray <tbray@textuality.com>
  • Date: Sun, 07 Feb 1999 19:22:12 -0700

> This group is notably and vocally dissatisfied with the specs, I 
> am watching with attention for concrete suggestions as to how
> to make future specs better - the one premise that seems to get
> consensus, in this group at least, is "more examples".  (Hmm, the
> namespace spec has tons).  

Your polite chastisement is quite warranted: many of us have been complaining 
about the specs without offering "concrete" suggestions for improvement.

I had this in mind when I posted my part, but, you see, the problems do not 
lie in any particular pattern.  Difficulties I have come across in trying to 
understand the specs have been quite varied.  Sometimes it appears the specs 
rely on several assumptions that might have been well discussed within the WG, 
but never made it to "paper".  The DOM spec often reads that way.  At other 
times, given examples and "clarifying" appendices have instead caused 
confusion, as in the Namespaces spec.  In yet other cases, there appear to be 
several distinct functions conflated into one spec, for instance, the XSL 
spec, which is subject of a long, current thread in the XSL list where a large 
majority favor splitting it into two specs: one concerning transformation and 
one formatting specs.  In the general case, there are many frictions between 
the various specs: they tend to overlap in some areas, sometimes in 
conflicting ways, and they tend to leave gaps in other areas.

Now some of this might be inveterate whining on the part of non WG members, 
but I am comforted in seeing that many other intelligent readers have run into 
the same walls as I have.  Certainly, the WG had excellent reasons for making 
certain choices that were bound to be unpopular.  The main problem appears to 
be lack of communication between the WGs and outsiders.

The W3C is certainly not the most inscrutable standards organization I've 
seen, but considering its influence over the Internet, supposedly a medium 
characterized by open and loud communication, it can often appear to be some 
shadowy group dominated by a clutch of large vendors handing down inevitably 
imperfect specs to outsiders, but not giving the outsiders much say in the 
improvement of the documents.

Yes, I know that the whole "release early/release often" model of the W3C's 
putting up a series of drafts before the final recommendation is designed to 
incorporate outside input, and I'm sure feed-back from places such as this 
group is considered, but there is precious little communication from the W3C, 
IMHO, as to why some feed-back, regardless of consensus, does not appear to 
reflect on subsequent documents.

To give an example of an even more complex, long-running, and politically 
charged standards effort, I'll recall the development of the ANSI C++ 
standard.  I followed the standard very closely until I got disenchanted with 
the language, and with all the problems with that effort, one thing was clear: 
the public was _very_ involved, and there were very visible effects of this 
involvement.  Tim Bray and James Clark have been admirable ambassadors from 
the W3C for the WGs with which they are involved, but I haven't felt the same 
give-and-take from many other members.  Most ANSI committe members for the C++ 
standard, people such as P.J. Plauger, Tom Plum, Dan Saks, and Stroustroup 
himself, were very highly and visibly involved with C++ developers.  Many 
ideas from outsiders were incorporated throughout the process, and not just 
from big-nickel companies: if I remember rightly, auto_ptr came from a bright 

Before the draft was solidified, there was a long period for public comment, 
and there was much discussion of the comments that were received.

I may be biased, but I haven't felt the same level of openness from the W3C, 
and it seems to me that many of the peopblems that people complain of in the 
specs have been pointed out many times, and still re-appear in subsequent 
editions of specs without any visible consideration of the complaints.

The W3C often gets press to the effect that it's a small clique massed around 
the persoanlity of Tim Berners-Lee.  I highly doubt that extremity, from what 
I've observed of people like Tim Bray and James Clark, but I'm not sure the 
W3C is doing as much as it reasonably can to dispel the (literal) FUD that 
surrounds many of its efforts.

Uche Ogbuji
FourThought LLC, IT Consultants
uche.ogbuji@fourthought.com	(970)481-0805
Software engineering, project management, Intranets and Extranets
http://FourThought.com		http://OpenTechnology.org

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