Standards, Work Groups, and Reality Checks: A Radical Proposal.

Benjamin Franz (snowhare@netimages.com)
Fri, 22 Sep 1995 16:21:28 -0700 (PDT)


Date: Fri, 22 Sep 1995 16:21:28 -0700 (PDT)
From: Benjamin Franz <snowhare@netimages.com>
To: www-html@w3.org, html-wg@oclc.org
Subject: Standards, Work Groups, and Reality Checks: A Radical Proposal.
In-Reply-To: <9509221856.AA05890@smithfield.declab.usu.edu>
Message-Id: <Pine.LNX.3.91.950922135826.18203A-100000@ns.viet.net>

On Fri, 22 Sep 1995 brandon@smithfield.declab.usu.edu wrote on 
www-html@w3.org:

[example of yet another way where the approved way and practice in HTML 
are now diverging deleted for space]

> They will not agree with you, because to them the latter is better!  So,
> in order for us to work users towards wanting the actual standards--rather
> than personal browser standards--we will have to convince them that using
> TrueHTML is the better thing, which means it _has to be better_.
> 
> The best way to do this is to educate the users, let them know that they
> can use <p align=center> over <center>, and that it is more accepted.
> Get some of the GOOD additions to HTML actually incorporated into the
> True standard, rather than holding out and being stubborn (such as
> border=xxx on images).
[...]

This was originally going to be an extension of Brandon's remarks. After 
a few hours of writing, I came to conclusion that what I was really after 
wasn't extensions of his remarks, but radical change in the thoughts 
of the html-wg. So if this seems long, it is. If you want to get 
to 'the beef', skip to the last sentence, and decide if you want to 
read the rest.

The HTML development effort is now into about stage 6 of a project 
(Punishment of the Innocent). How did it get into this rather sorry 
state? Easy. By ignoring the most basic rules of writing a coding 
standard that must interact with *NON*-technical users:


  Rule 0: Either keep the design simple and obvious enough that
          non-gurus can learn to correctly use it by reading 
          existing code or make it impossible to be used *at all*
          without understanding the standard.


Rants about validating code or reading DTDs are utter bunk for 99.9% of 
users. They not only won't - most of them have never even _heard_ of 
validation or DTDs and couldn't use them even if they had. Most users 
of the web *ARE NOT* programmers or computer wizards today - and the most 
intensive education campaign will not make them into ones.

HTML fails either to make the standard simple enough or complex enough to 
be 'unbreakable'. It has taken a middle ground that is simple enough for 
people to *think* they understand it from examples, while actually being 
complex enough that without actually reading the official standard you are 
*CERTAIN* to write bad code. Since the DTD can be *implied*, extremely 
few users even realize that there *is* a DTD; and a vanishingly 
small percentage could understand that DTD if their very life depended 
on it.


  Rule 1: Don't play King Canute to the tide.


If every major browser company is implementing a feature *not* in the 
current standard, say FONT|TEXT|BGCOLOR|VLINK|ALINK|LINK|WIDTH="XX%", 
and the *majority* of users are *using* them - the WG is play King Canute 
if it refuses to try and actively attempt to integrate them into the 
standard. Passive 'we'll do it when Company N give us a formal 
description' for month after month is not going to cut it. At *LEAST* 
four browsers have implemented these extensions now.

Playing King Canute not only doesn't work - it breeds contempt for those 
stupid enough to play the leading role and insures people will listen 
even *less* to them in the future. If most people aren't using your 
'sooper-dooper' feature and demand different ones than you want to offer 
- maybe they aren't the problem.


  Rule 2: Finalize standards in a timely matter.


It simply does not matter if a _perfect_ standard comes out in 2032. If 
you don't have a clear and stable _good enough_ standard when the 
market needs it, the market will do it its own way, and the hell with the 
WG. When this happens the WG is going to run into Rule 2 sooner or later. 
Most likely sooner. FIG is a perfect example of this. The WG has been 
promoting FIG for imbedded objects for about two years. It only got the 
content model settled in the last month or so. IMG is and will remain the 
champion for quite some time. Its replacement won't be FIG - it will be 
almost certainly be EMBED.


  Rule 3: "Lead, Follow, or get the hell out of the way."


Nearly every recent *successful* innovation to HTML, with the 
possible exception of tables (depending on how generous you are with 
regards to Netscape's implementation of same), has been brought to 
fruition by people _ignoring_ the the WG and its quest for the 'perfect' 
standard. That is as clear an indicator of a disfunctional standards group 
as I can conceive of. 

If the WG wants to understand why it is steadily becoming less and less 
relevant to the evolution of HTML as is is *actually* used - all it has to 
do is check the rules of standards development it spent the last two years 
breaking. Not the IETF rules - the human interaction ones.

The effort to cram the ball of worms that HTML has become (and 
honestly always has been) into an SGML compatible can is doomed for the 
foreseable future. Not because a good SGML compatible standard can't be 
written, but because the SGML driven group simply isn't in the driver's 
seat anymore: The HTML driver's seat is now owned by browser and page 
authors.

The HTML group is justifiably perturbed by the bizarre things claiming 
Content-type: text/html. They want the newcomers to *be* test/html if 
they say they are, and don't understand why they refuse to stand on some 
other content-type if they aren't. 

Its easy: 

          Most browsers read and do *something* reasonable with
          text/html. Big potential audience.
 
          Most browsers just D/L test/x-html to a file, assuming the
          server I am using even knows about '.mynewextention and
          experimental mime type'. Small potential audience.

Right or wrong, in market driven by *economics* rather than standards 
- they are *going* to serve it up as text/html.

So how does the WG get away from this morass?

Content-type: text/sgml

It is time to quite trying to cram square-peg HTML into the round-hole SGML 
mold when the *real* goal is SGML itself. It is time to apply Rule 3: The 
html-wg *can't* lead on HTML and *won't* follow: it is time to get the 
hell out the way.

The development of HTML of *all* levels should be officially ended 
with the acceptance of HTML 2.0 (whenever that happens...) and left to 
evolve in whatever direction the market carries it. I suspect a lightweight 
hypertext PDL will be the result. It is time to move on to true SGML. If 
SGML is (as I and many others really do believe) so much superior - it is 
time to prove it.

I move to dis-establish the HTML working group.

-- 
Benjamin Franz