More specifically - the importance of web standards. It's a big subject in the field of web design, and not an easy one to explain. There's a chance I should be picking something a little easier to start this off with, but what the heck, let's just jump right in, both feet!

A Look Back

The phrase "web standards" - or "standards-based design", or a number of other, similar, variations - refers to websites built in accordance with the W3C HTML and CSS rules. The W3C is an organization - possibly closer to a confederation - of designers, internet guru-type, and professionals in the field. Established in 1994, it had - and still has - the single goal of establishing a standard, usable, nonpartisan set of rules and regulation for website code. With the so-called Browser Wars just getting started at the time, there was a lot of need for an entity like this.

Let's back up a minute. Let's step back even away from the web itself, and look at computing in the mid to late eighties. Yeah, I don't like looking back there, either. But it's a dirty job, and... you get the point. In 1987, your average home computer - such as there was - ran MS-DOS, a command-line operating system that didn't look very pretty, but got the job done. Well, it did for one fellow, anyway. At one task. Unfortunately, his neighbor had a slightly different computer, and everything looked just a little different for him. And that other guy down the street? He was using a Mac - with pictures on screen, and everything! They could all use the machines to push out work, but consistency? Fellow A seeing the same thing that Fellow B does? Not a chance.

It's the same way with internet browsers and web standards. In those dark "pre-W3C" days, while the base rules of the web were already pretty accepted (things like <p>, <b>, <i> tags), there was a push to do more with it, and no baseline way to actually do so. Which led to browsers themselves - Internet Explorer and Netscape, back then - to offering extensions themselves. We got marquee and blink tags. No, I won't illustrate them for you. Of course, blinking text only worked in IE, and marquee? That was Netscape-only, for a time. While now we can look back and sigh with relief that only part of the market had to suffer through those, at the time, that was cutting-edge... and you had to pick one or the other.

All this might have been acceptable when the web consisted of a lot of text, and a few pictures off to the side here and there, but then designers and marketing got ahold of it. And now? Well, look around at the site you're on. Little bit more detailed than "lots of text, and a few pictures." Marketing is about appearance and presentation, and business wants a lot of control over those things. Right now, we've got a number of browsers in the market - IE, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome - if each displayed things in a substantially different way, what a fright that'd be for marketing! Which is where standards come in.

The Status Quo

Right now, standards-based design is finally - yes, it took this long - beginning to come into its own. The W3C has published multiple versions of their rules, and the importance is really becomming recognized. The early adopters picked it up years ago, but for a lot of folk, it's only just now becoming clear. And it's a good thing. As developers, the fact that browsers generally support the standards means that we can design a site like this, and expect it to look the same to us, our cousins, and the client over on the other side of the country. And not only now, but in the future - two years from now, we won't have to redo all our work because things have changed around and the look is broken and fractured, appearing a dozen different ways to a dozen different folks. That's money saved right there.

This is getting long, so let's leave of here for a bit. Next time, we'll cover the SEO, accessibility, and other benefits provided by standards.