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February 23, 2001 > Strategists

At A Glance

On February 16th, WaSP (the Web Standards Project) announced its Browser Upgrade initiative. This editorial response explains why it's a great thing, but points out a few things of which you should be aware before jumping in whole hog.


WaSP's Press Release

WaSP's Browser Upgrade Page

A List Apart

To Hell with Bad Browsers

Editorial Response to WaSP's Upgrade Your Browser Initiative

By Molly E. Holzschlag, Executive Editor, WebReview.com
Rank 1

In juicy news this week, WaSP (the Web Standards Project) proves it's back and bad. Using aggressive commentary yet providing plenty of supportive help, WaSP is asking us as Web developers and designers to upgrade our browsers and write documents that conform to W3C recommendations no matter the results.

WaSP co-founder Jeffrey Zeldman points out that recent browser versions such as Internet Explorer 5, Netscape 6, and Opera 5 all have significant support for recommendations including HTML 4.01, CSS1, ECMAscript, and the DOM. By using W3C recommendations and current browsers, we can ideally move away from the frustrating cross-browser/cross-platform issues that have plagued us for so long.

Having been a member of WaSP and an advocate of W3C recommendations for years, I find this initiative extremely encouraging. And, I think no Web designer or developer worth his or her salt won't at least consider using recommendations instead of defaulting to proprietary and problematic methodologies.

I do have a few rants and raves about the topic in general, and the initiative in specific.

You Don't Need Better Browsers to Comply with Recommendations

Upgrading is a good idea, and I suggest we all do it. However, there is nothing that prevents—or has prevented—us from choosing to adhere to recommendations and make sites completely backward compatible no matter the browser. There are two primary reasons we've not done so, first, because many of us have not properly educated ourselves in recommendations, and second, because in an effort to innovate we may have chosen to break rules rather than adhere to them.

Now I'm not saying that the general lack of education in terms of recommendations is entirely our fault. Nor am I saying that innovation should stop and we should follow the W3C like sheep. I am going to point fingers first at Web browser developers for not paying attention to recommendations earlier—after all, Microsoft and Netscape have been involved with W3C working groups in an effort to define these recommendations! I am going to point to the W3C for not making its documentation more human friendly. Yes, the argument's been made that it's not their job, but some good tutorials, or an immediately accessible list of external education resources on the W3C site would be very helpful. Finally, browsers have been far too forgiving. It's one of the reasons they're also far too bloated in size.

"There is no excuse at this point for any of us working at the professional designer or developer level to not have at least a working understanding of how to write decent markup."

Now that I've indicted the big guys, I am going to point to the rest of us. There is no excuse at this point for any of us working at the professional designer or developer level to not have at least a working understanding of how to write decent markup. The information is out there. We publish it here at WebReview.com for free, every week. Not to mention the volumes of books, articles, Web sites, and related resources that both the writers and readers of WebReview.com have written covering these very topics. There's also the classes we conduct, the conferences we attend, and the free email assistance all of us provide to our readers, our friends, our co-workers. Hey, we're all in the process of learning this stuff, and I think most of us agree that we're delighted when others want to learn it too. It means a better situation for everyone, after all.

But, at some point, we must claim responsibility as designers and developers to get our education properly handled. It's more important now that the dot-coms have crashed, because if we want to be working, we simply must have the goods.

So back to my original point: we don't really need to upgrade our browsers to be writing documents that conform to certain W3C recommendations. Even if some people prefer not to use CSS positioning, and even if some want to hang on to the font tag—you can still do it all and be in adherence with the recommendations. Both HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 offer transitional DTDs that give us a lot of leeway to create great looking, backward-compatible sites and still be in compliance. It just takes a little savvy.

Break the Web?

Zeldman's radical approach is uplifting. In order to demonstrate the WaSP initiative, Zeldman re-did the awesome A List Apart site. He's also added some helpful Q&A as to why he did what he did. The article, To Hell with Bad Browsers, is a must-read (see sidebar). And, for the record, I think it makes total sense.


Not everyone will be able to be at the forefront of this movement. Some of us still have to deal with old-school clients or corporate entities, or other little things that involve money. And while we can educate the public as best we can, the sad fact remains that there are a lot of brick walls out there to bang our overworked heads against. What's more, there are instances where people in the world don't have the computer power to support these advanced browsers. If you've never seen what's in some of our schools—much less educational and governmental agencies world-over, let me tell you that we are indeed a privileged bunch with our pumped RAM and speed-freak processing power.

"Despite the bandying about of the word standards, what the W3C has done with these technologies is simply recommended them. They are not standards."

Here's a novel idea: Follow recommendations, and if you don't need detailed design, simplify. There is great beauty in simplicity. Documents can be in compliance with recommendations and also be readable, accessible, and attractive. To have compliant, compatible documents is a goal that is—and long has been—perfectly within reach if we are first willing to know our audience and client and worry about serving them properly

But if we're in a position to be more aggressive in our initiatives, I'm all for radical.

Recommendations Are Ahead of Browsers

Despite the fact that WaSP discusses HTML 4.01 and CSS1, the reality is that W3C recommendations have advanced beyond these points. Does that advancement mean that we shouldn't be writing HTML 4.01 or CSS1? No, of course not. Despite the bandying about of the word standards, what the W3C has done with these technologies is simply recommended them. They are not standards. I made that mistake for years, and it's a gross one. It's cool that W3C recommendations are not standards because that means we can write a document to conform with the HTML 3.2 recommendation, or the HTML 4.01 recommendation, or XHTML 1.0 recommendation, and we're still within W3C ideology.

For the record, current recommendations of interest to readers are:

  • Web markup: XHTML 1.0
  • CSS: CSS2
  • DOM: Level 2 Specification

Educate and Evaluate

On behalf of WebReview.com, I wholeheartedly endorse WaSP's browser upgrade initiative. But I caution designers and developers to use the resources provided by WaSP— A List Apart, WebReview.com, and any of the other wonderful developer/designer sites on the Web—to look deeper into the issues surrounding recommendations. We must educate ourselves, and evaluate in each individual circumstance who our clients are, who their audience is, what their intent for their Web site is, and what the right approach to the design will be.

If we do it right, we'll be complying with recommendations as well as creating sites that are appropriate for our audiences, backward compatible if necessary, or refreshingly radical in promoting an idea whose time has most definitely come.

Molly is the Executive Editor of WebReview.com. She has authored countless articles and books on HTML, XHTML, and related technologies.

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