Web standards are best defined as guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium W3C to promote consistency in design code which makes up a web page. These standards, while not enforceable by law, have a great deal of benefit to both web developers and web surfers alike.
Maybe the best phrase to describe web standards is a set of standardized "best practices" for building websites. While the following list is not exhaustive, these best practices consist primarily of the following three things:
- Recommendations published by W3C.
- Standards published by ECMA International.
- Standards published by the International Organization for Standardization.
As the World Wide Web continues to grow in importance in almost every aspect of life, the standards that exist to develop it grow in importance as well. These standards allow the web to be free and accessible to anyone that has an internet connection, essentially evening the playing field for those surfing the web.
The Internet before standards
Before the World Wide Web, the internet existed almost exclusively to provide pages of full text information. While it was good for exchanging information, it was neither visually stimulating nor interesting to the common person. Basically, it was boring. There were no pictures and even the formatting of the text could make it difficult to process. In short, before the World Wide Web, the Internet had the potential to be useful but would struggle to gain widespread appeal.
There were still some issues after the World Wide Web and before standards became commonplace. For instance, when creating a website in the early 1990s, a designer would create each site to fit the browser for which it was intended. That means that, in the 1990s, many web developers would create different sites to fit the major internet browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator.
How standards came about
In March of 1989, Tim Berners wrote a document called "Information Management: A Proposal" in which he laid out his vision for what would become the World Wide Web. By October 1990, he had written the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundation for the Web:
- HTML: HyperText Markup Language
- URI: Uniform Resource Identifier (also known as URL)
- HTTP: HyperText Transfer Protocol
By the end of 1990, the first webpage had been served on the open Internet, and Berners made a decision that has altered the course of technology and the world. Realizing that the Web would only reach its true potential if it were available to anyone, anywhere, with no fees attached, it was agreed that the underlying code would be available on a royalty free basis forever.
In 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium was founded and devoted to developing open web standards. Berners is still the director of the W3C to this day, but in the early stages of this community, five important and revolutionary ideas were produced that would lead standards to where they are today.
- Decentralization: No permission from a central authority is needed to post anything on the web.
- Nondiscrimination: Also known as net neutrality, this principle states that no matter the quality of internet service you have, you can communicate on the same level. Just because your internet service is faster or more secure does not mean that you have an advantage on how you communicate over the web.
- Bottom-up design: The code was developed in full view of everyone who was interested. Anyone and everyone was encouraged to participate and experiment together.
- Universality: All computers involved would have to speak the same language. This language would have to exist regardless of hardware, location, culture, political beliefs, etc.
- Consensus: Everyone had to agree to use the standards. While not legally enforceable, it is very difficult to effectively use the internet without using these standards.
These principles continue to guide the standards that exist today.
Why we need standards
Many of the advantages of these standards are either specifically mentioned or can be logically observed by the information above. However, it is important to state some of the most important advantages of having standards that guide the World Wide Web. Five of the biggest advantages are as follows:
- Web pages will display in a wide variety of browsers and computers. As technology grows, so does the number of potential devices and browsers. Devices such as smartphones, tablets, PDAs, etc. have all greatly increased the viewing audience and these standards have allowed the web to be viewed on each of them.
- The use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or design code that is attached to rather than embedded in a web page is promoted by W3C standards. This reduces file size and increases loading speed both of which also reduce hosting costs.
- Fonts, colors, and other design elements can easily be changed by modifying one sheet rather than editing whole pages. This allows for flexibility and decreased costs to modify your site.
- Search engines can access and index pages designed to standards much more quickly and efficiently than those that are not.
- Accessibility is important as well and is a driving force behind HTML. This ensures that people with disabilities or who are using web browsers that are different than the usual ones (i.e. voice or braille browsers) can use the web as well as anyone else.
The most common W3C standards
While there are many different standards written and created by the W3C, there are some that are used and referenced more often than the rest. These standards have become the most important and most oft-used standards.
HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is the publishing language of the World Wide Web that Berners developed. HTML was created and developed with the idea that any number of devices and browsers should be able to access the information on the web. HTML has been improved upon and extended numerous times. The most notable of those have been:
- HTML 2.0 was developed to work across different browsers and platforms.
- HTML 3.0 proposed much richer versions of HTML but a consensus was never reached.
- HTML 3.2 was similar to 3.0 but added enough to gain the consensus that 3.0 did not reach.
- HTML 4 extended HTML style sheets, scripting, frames, richer tables, etc. It also improved accessibility for people with disabilities.
- HTML5 is our current version and allows the building of more diverse and powerful websites and apps.
Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a publishing language similar to HTML. The main difference is that it allows you to define your own set of elements rather than them being fixed. XML is mostly used for machine to machine communication because standards compliant support for rendering XML in browsers is inconsistent.
HyperText Markup Language (XHTML) is a reformulation of HTML as XML. In fact, XHTML will show in your browser identically to HTML. The use of XHTML is if you may want to reprocess your content, XML has stricter rules which will make reprocessing XHTML quicker and cheaper than HTML. There are virtually no presentational attributes in XHTML which will make your work extremely structured with all of your presentation work going into a style sheet.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is a mechanism for changing the appearance of HTML and XML elements by assigning styles to those elements. CSS are used to define the appearance of a website taking HTML code and forming it into a design on a page. CSS created a simpler and more structured web while also reducing the file size related to each web page. This reduction in size, increase in structure, and relative ease of organization revolutionized the web while also making it more accessible.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) define how to make the web more accessible to people with disabilities. Almost 20% of the American population has been diagnosed with a disability and a large percentage of those people use the web. Making the web more accessible means allowing people with physical, visual, auditory, cognitive, language and learning disabilities to have access to online information. WCAG, while they cannot address every degree of every disability, make the content of the web available to as many people as possible. They also take into account the number of older users with changing abilities due to age. With such a large number of people needing help accessing the web, the WCAG has one of the more difficult jobs in terms of creating necessary standards.