Twenty years ago when the web was young, the topic of standards was mainly the purview of computer scientists, engineers, and enterprise technologists. But these days, emerging web standards have become everyone's business.
Part of the reason is that the sheer number of standards with which a web entity must comply has mushroomed in the past decade. Mark Rogers, CEO of PowerMapper Software, a U.K.-based software company specializing in website analysis tools, compares the current state of standards to planning a night out at a pub. "In the old days, it was two people trying to figure out when to meet. Now it's much more complicated, because there are a hundred people who have to agree when to meet, and it has to work for every single one of them," Rogers says.
Jeff Whatcott, SVP of marketing at Brightcove, an online video platform, agrees that the current dynamic environment for web standards is unique. "I've never seen it like this," he says. "It's like the browser wars all over again."
For content companies, choosing which emerging standards to embrace requires staying up-to-date with multiple standards bodies, customer environments, commercial implications, federal regulations, and timing challenges. Leveraging standards means getting comfortable with the trade-offs between what's possible now and what's on the horizon.
Let's start with some basics on what web standards are and why they're worth knowing about-regardless of your technical interest or acumen. According to a manifesto from MACCAWS (Making a Commercial Case for Web Standards), a group of developers active in the early part of the decade helping their peers better communicate the benefits of web standards to nontechnical managers, "Web standards make the Web a place where files can be read by anyone, regardless of what they are using to access the Internet." Such standards seek to make sure that content authors and content users on the web can communicate with one another, regardless of the device upon which the webpage is being experienced.
The benefits of adherence to web standards include easier development and maintenance, which translates into cost savings. Margie Hlava is president, chairman, and founder of Access Innovations, Inc. and is member of the board of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). She says, "Developing along standards saves money, because you don't have to reinvent the wheel each time."
Of course, few companies develop systems to work in a vacuum; the likelihood that your web-based program will have to play nicely with other applications and developers in the cloud, in an outsourcing arrangement, with customers, or with contractors, is high. Utilizing standards means that future maintenance and development will require less intensive care than a nonstandard program.
Another key benefit is improved accessibility. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes access to information and communications technologies, including the web, as a basic human right. It's regulated by law in many countries including the U.S. and U.K., so standards compliance can be considered a risk mitigation strategy.
But ensuring that people with disabilities can access your web content isn't just a defensive move; it's good business. A blind online shopper, a retiree with aging-related issues managing a portfolio of investments, or a person with repetitive stress injuries preventing him or her from using a standard keyboard all fall into the category of users who need flexible access to the web. That same flexibility-whether made through transcripts of audio files, on-screen text alternatives to images, or scrolling control-can make your site easier to navigate for any customer.
Adherence to web standards also improves SEO. Properly structured HTML is easier for search engines to process. "Search engines have difficulty with broken sites," points out Rogers. "If your page is compliant, you may still not rank at the top. But at least you can be assured that the search engine found everything on the page."
Standards also enable device interoperability. At a time when smartphone and tablet computing is undergoing meteoric growth, the ability to separate content from structure gives assurance to publishers that their content will display in any device in which the user experiences it. Rogers says, "It's a way to future-proof your work. I was just looking at a webpage from the mid 1990s on my iPhone, and because it was HTML compliant it displayed just fine."
Whatcott says, "Multidevice is huge for us right now. Clients want to be sure that their videos will work anyplace they're viewed." With research firm iSuppli releasing a report in June 2010 projecting that global smartphone business will more than double over the next 4 years, with shipments rising to 506 million units in 2014, demand for multidevice viewing is only going to get bigger.
However, despite numerous advantages to standards adherence, it's not always easy to figure out which standards to comply with, with a number of organizations issuing standards on topics impacting various aspects of the content industry. Each arose to meet the specific needs of slightly different constituencies, but there's plenty of room for overlap.
There's the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a 163-nation organization for which the official U.S. body is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI's maintenance agency for library and information standards, including the web, is the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). NISO has issued standards ranging from "Title Pages for Conference Publications" to "The Dublin Core Metadata Element Set," the latter of which defines 15 metadata elements for resource description in a cross-disciplinary information environment.
ISO board member Hlava believes that the length of time it takes to get a standard from initial draft to ratification within NISO (2-5 years) gave impetus to the establishment in 1994 of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), led by Tim Berners-Lee and Jeffrey Jaffe. "The length of time it takes to get NISO standards ratified would be deadly for businesses trying to keep up with web development time frames," she says. "So WC3 came along, and [it] focuses more on web-only issues." WC3's vision statement for the web "involves participation, sharing knowledge, and thereby building trust on a global scale."\
The Library of Congress issues its own digital library standards, including the Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) and the Metadata Object Description Standard (MODS), an XML markup schema for selected metadata. There's also the Internet Society (ISOC), an independent international nonprofit organization founded in 1992 to provide leadership in internet-related standards, education, and policy.
In a positive sign of increased alignment between the various standards organizations, the ISOC announced plans to donate funds to support W3C in December 2009. Hlava says the NISO and W3C are also getting better at talking to each other, communicating more and finding ways to work out conflicting approaches. "We recently came up with a ‘crosswalk' between W3C ontology specifications and ISO thesaurus standards so that the two are not in conflict," she says.
NISO has also introduced a fast-track approval process to cope with what Hlava characterizes as broader interest in commercial standards compliance. "There's more awareness than before. And a lot of customers are putting pressure on their vendors to provide them standards-compliant solutions," says Hlava.
A Long Road to Compliance
In 2008, browser maker Opera, Software ran a test against 3.5 million webpages, using a proprietary metadata analysis and mining tool, with the intent to validate them against W3C web specifications. It found that only 4.13% of the pages were compliant; worse, it found that 50% of pages displaying a badge avowing standards compliance were actually noncompliant.
There's no doubt that fixing noncompliant websites and applications is a daunting task. Rogers says that when his company is hired to check a corporate website for standards compliance violations, it's not uncommon to see 100 problems per webpage. "Multiply that by 100,000 pages on a corporate website, and it can be a long road," Rogers says, particularly at a time when product development teams are competing for scarce resources.
There's also the fact that standards are never set in stone. Melissa Webster, program vice president for IDC's Content and Digital Media Technologies research program, says, "Standards evolve due to the availability of enabling technologies. And, by definition, they come along after innovation; they tend to facilitate rather than drive new development."
Even when a standard is considered relatively stable, there can be significant lag time before it is in common usage. Whatcott points to HTML5, the latest iteration of W3C's standard for markup language facilitating structural semantics for text. "It's not yet supported by all browsers, and even when they do support it, those browser versions will take a while to roll out to desktops. The point is far out in the future when HTML5 will be the lowest common denominator."
Greg Merkle, vice president and creative director at Dow Jones, says, "The question we're all asking right now is, ‘When is Internet Explorer 6.0 going to die?'" Constrained by the widespread usage of a browser that doesn't always render code properly and requires extra work to adapt, Merkle's team was counting the days until July 13, when Microsoft officially dropped support for that version of its popular browser.
And to keep things interesting, when it comes to evolving standards, patent infringements are just a part of the territory. Google recently released an open source HTML5 video codec, VP8, the spoils from its February 2010 acquisition of On2 Technologies. The format competes head-to-head with the more commonly used H.264, the patents for which reside with MPEG LA, a consortium of technology providers who charge royalties for commercial use. "What if H.264 patent holders say VP8 infringes-is it really entirely original?" asks Webster. The idea of an open standard codec for commercial use is appealing, but it could be premature. She adds, "I wouldn't be surprised to see if there are infringement cases filed."
Companies could be faced with a choice of using the VP8 codec as a cost savings move that may end up being adversely impacted by infringement cases or letting the dust settle first and losing a timing advantage.
Striking a Balance
You ask yourself not if this or that is expedient, but if it is right.
Author Alan Paton was probably not writing about the conundrum of designing for Internet Explorer 6.0 versus Google Chrome, but he gets to the heart of the conflict for businesses that are weighing standards compliance. "After a decade of working in the web world," says Whatcott, "publishers have learned that they have to be pragmatic. If a standard is going to restrict your audience in any way, it's not that compelling. They're looking for the best possible user experience that will also help them make money."
Merkle likens the process to looking through a dual lens, keeping up-to-date both with current standards and the ones that are emerging. Merkle says that Dow Jones continuously polls its customers to find out what they're using and why they might not be moving to newer standards. He says, "We classify our customers. There are early adopters who can help us validate our long-term vision with regard to standards. And then there is the reality of other customers."
Beyond learning from customers what standards they're tracking and at what pace, content industry companies can help influence the discussion via participation and membership on standards boards. "If you're developing new products, you should try to be part of the conversation," says Hlava. That's not difficult to do; for instance, W3C invites public comment
on its drafts and charters and encourages membership participation in other aspects of its specification development. Early participation in these discussions can help companies anticipate the eventual impacts on product strategy.
Standard in the Spotlight: Video
With standards for everything from authentication to mobile web applications to internationalization under scrutiny right now, it may be instructive to drill down into one high-profile subject-video on the web-as a case study in the careful balance between standards compliance and commercial realities.
For years, the de facto web platform for viewing video has been the Adobe Flash Player. Stable, versatile, and powerful, a Millward Brown survey conducted in March 2010 showed that Flash is the world's most pervasive software platform, used by more than 2 million professionals and reaching 99% of internet-enabled desktops.
And then along came the iPad. With the announcement that Apple would support HTML5 for video, but not Flash, on its devices, the stage for a standards showdown was set. IDC's Webster observes that, "There's no technical reason why Apple can't support Flash. But they've decided to make it about standards because it plays into their interest to control content viewed on their devices."
As defined by Mark Pilgrim in his digital book Dive Into HTML5 (2010, O'Reilly Media), "HTML5 is the next generation of HTML, superseding HTML 4.01, XHTML 1.0, and XHTML 1.1. HTML5 provides new features that are necessary for modern web applications. It also standardizes many features of the web platform that web developers have been using for years, but which have never been vetted or documented by a standards committee." While it is still in Working Draft form within the W3C organization, many of the specifications are considered stable and have already been implemented in commercial products.
Brightcove has supported HTML5 since 2008. But, according to Whatcott, it has not been a "top of mind" issue, requested mainly by customers targeting the iPhone. Compared to functionality Brightcove could offer to Flash users, says Whatcott, HTML5 lacks features of analytics, ad technology, and player customization. Even so, as soon as the Apple announcement was made regarding HTML5, Whatcott says, "Our phone started ringing off the hook."
Publishers are looking at the attributes of the iPad target audience-affluent and loyal-and seeing the clear business impetus to embrace HTML5. To meet customer demand, Brightcove has rolled out a two-stage road map for HTML5 support for its users, which will provide them basic reporting and advertising and eventually analytics as well. "The iPad created immediate urgency around HTML5," Whatcott says, and it may have finally given the push the emerging standard needed to gain broader market acceptance. But for publishers focused on how to provide the best customer experience today, HTML5 may not yet be ready for prime time.
As the debate continues, Dow Jones' Merkle describes a reasonable framework for thinking about standards in general. He says, "I have to consider both where I can make my money now and where the money is eventually going to be."
Access Innovations - www.accessinn.com
Adobe Systems - www.adobe.com
American National Standards Institute (ANSI) - www.ansi.org
Apple - www.apple.com
Brightcove, Inc. - www.brightcove.com
Dive Into HTML5, Mark Pilgrim - http://diveintohtml5.org
Dow Jones - www.dowjones.com
Google - www.google.com
International Organization for Standardization (ISO) - www.iso.org
Internet Society (ISOC) - www.isoc.org
Library of Congress - www.loc.gov/standards
PowerMapper Software - www.powermapper.com
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - www.w3.org