Are Internet standards a thing of the past?

Are Internet standards slipping? - does it matter?

The main protagonists in the debate are Netscape, the innovator, pitched against Spyglass who is fighting from the standards corner. Providing support are a surprising crew: Sun, long time champion of standards, seems to be putting its weight behind Netscape perhaps in return for assistance in establishing their Java technology. With Netscape’s commanding 70 per cent market share of the browser market, there are a lot of users that have voted for Netscape with their FTP clients.

Spyglass inherited the Mosaic mantle from the NCSA/University of Illinois. Among others, we find Microsoft running with Spyglass, which is surprising given Microsoft’s predilections for blazing its own trail.

Technical standards underpin the usefulness and success of any technology. A well worn example is the telephone. Adherence to a standard ensures that virtually every telephone can call virtually any other telephone anywhere in the world. Modern life provides countless other examples ranging from fax machines, petrol star ratings, electricity and photographic film.

The reason why the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) exist at all is because fundamental standards have been set. The Internet Protocol (IP) made the Internet possible by enabling universal computer-to-computer communication (while waiting for the OSI products that never arrived). The HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) underpin the Web in all its glory and make hyperlinked multimedia client-server browsing possible across the Internet.

Open standards For an entity only a few years old, there is surprising movement in defining and enhancing the standards that support the Web. Several standards bodies are concerned with Internet and WWW standards, including the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and various Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) working groups. The newest is the W3C, headed by Tim Berners Lee, the father of the Web. There is a lot of academic input in W3C but it has been balanced by some strong corporate involvement.

All parties to the rapidly escalating debate mouth adherence to ‘open standards’. Open generally means much more than developing a specification behind closed doors, publishing it, and proclaiming it a standard a la the Microsoft model that Netscape has been accused of aping. ‘Open’ as meant by the legions of UNIX-based philosophers (still the majority of Internet techies) means both an open process and an open result.

Standards groups like the IETF working groups for HTTP and HTML create open forums for debate and discussion about whether and how to implement new capabilities and features. The entire Internet/Web community is represented in this process. As a result, standards established by these groups are implicitly open, and are not likely to favour the interests of one company, consortium, or organisation over the common interests of the community at large. However, all this jawing takes time - and in a hot area like the Web there will always be trail blazers, keen to extend the reach of new technology.

The traditional standards side argues that if the Web is to fulfil its considerable promise, then promulgation after reasoned deliberation followed by disciplined adherence to strict standards are critical. Spyglass has committed to the responsible advancement of open standards. Attempting to secure commercial strength based on standards-based products, Spyglass is committed to proposing its technological advances to the appropriate bodies for debate, refinement, and endorsement.

Netscape, on the other hand, is intent on leading from the front.
To get the coolest Web pages, you need to use the HTML extensions put into practice by Netscape. This makes HTML standards a hot topic. Spyglass and other browser writers have already implemented certain extensions; but there is a growing body of software developers that are holding short until those HTML extensions are sanctioned by the appropriate bodies.

Netscape has created new standards by virtue of its commanding lead in the two year old software market and its technical advances in server-end software.

The traditionalists feel that unchecked expansion and proliferation of multiple flavours of HTML is simply a bad idea. Already we have seen the divergence created by Netscape’s improvements.

There is also some merit to maintaining the integrity of HTML so that it will remain consistent with Standard Generalized Markup Language conventions used in print publishing. This tends to rule out, from their corner, the ad hoc enhancements put into practice by the innovators. However, HTML is in far more widespread use than SGML ever was and there are some good reasons for splitting the two.

Nonetheless, HTML was never intended to be a substitute for desktop publishing tools. HTML’s speed and simplicity make it the perfect universal language for the Web. Weighing it down with fancy capabilities, turning it into a full scale online publishing environment seriously compromises this elegance. Other technologies that provide greater publisher control are under development, and some are available now like Adobe Acrobat, Common Ground and Novell’s Envoy.