W3C W3C, The Blue Helmets of Cyberspace

Original Appearance: 18 April 1997 in W3C Member Newsletter [W3C Members only]

Jesse Berst's AnchorDesk news service recently ran two articles crying out that the feud between Netscape and Microsoft threatened to split the Web and the Internet. He has since organized a petition drive to persuade these manufacturers and others to abide by 'net standards.

In my visits to Microsoft and Netscape, I've come to believe both companies genuinely want to adhere to public standards. Yet both companies are also fiercely competitive. In their zeal, they sometimes step over the line.


The Good News. Despite the current crisis, there is some good news. Both Microsoft and Netscape are fully involved with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C). Both companies meet regularly with the standards groups and with each other to hash out conflicts and reach compromises. In addition, the standards committees have been streamlining the process so proposals can be ratified more quickly.

I believe there may be ways to (1) accelerate the work of the standards bodies and (2) create a logo program so consumers can be sure they are buying a compatible product. I'm researching these possibilities now and I'll be back soon to report what I find.

In between those two events, we offered up W3C's perspective on these issues:

Jesse --

You certainly grabbed our attention with two of your recent Berst Alerts--

  1. Microsoft, Netscape Feud Puts HTML's Future at Risk
  2. Netscape Push Announcement Puts Internet in Even Greater Danger

We appreciated your approach as readers when you alerted the public to the state of Java standardization, and we appreciate your efforts to highlight the state of Web standards today. On the other hand, your coverage seems to position the froth and margins of industrial competition as vital threats to the commonweal. In fact, we believe W3C is doing an excellent job of mediating today's technical differences while leading the evolution towards a richer World Wide Web.

We'll cover some of the specific situations you allude to below, but here's the take-home lesson we're talking about:

  1. W3C does have the key players around the negotiating table
  2. W3C is moving at record speed
  3. W3C is coordinating many, many aspects of web evolution according to a common vision.

A. About W3C

The W3C has been an active voice in industry technology debates for a little over two years now. Today, we represent over one hundred and seventy developers, research organizations, government agencies, and users. We have a technical staff of three dozen folks around the world working in three Domains on thirty Activity Areas. We are not a:

  1. Standards body, because we do not make legally binding decisions
  2. Research Think-tank, because we work on the here-and-now
  3. Trade Organization, because we represent the public trust

We operate in many different ways: by developing consensus among current implementors, building and deploying experimental technology on our own, and by initiating multilaterial implemenation projects. We're not Web cops rapping people on knuckles and holding them back -- we're more like the Blue Helmets of the UN keeping the peace and striving for ever-greater harmony and tackling ever-larger problems.

B. About '[dD]ynamic HTML'

In some areas, such as HTML, the first step is to stabilize the patient. HTML 3.2, our first Recommendation in this arena, was released last year to capture the baseline status of the HTML debate as of January 1996. That does not mean we are a year behind -- we have been making rapid, separate progress on many other components of the next generation of HTML, codenamed Cougar. This includes: an OBJECT embedding standard, FORMs revisions, accessibility features, scripting integration, and much more. Future work includes a new Math markup model, interactions with XML, Web Collections, Style sheets, ... All work that you suggested "should have been finished last year". Well, it's not that simple. Remember, the SPA's budget is an order of magnitude larger than W3C, and all it does is sue users of pirated software.

The key is building trust around the table. Our Working Groups for HTML, Style Sheets, Document Object Model, and others, represent the leaders across the industry (far more than just the 'big two'). We have demonstrated a lot of concrete cooperations coming out from these quiet peacemaking efforts. The CSS Positioning draft, for example, is coauthored by Microsoft and Netscape representatives. Many, many aspects of CSS have been developed through implementation experience, so quite rightly many vendors (SoftQuad, Grif S.A., and more) have shipped CSS-based products before our CSS specs.

In the current marketing tussle over '[dD]ynamic HTML', a lot of territory is being cloaked under the fog of war. As you explained in your piece, this is not any single technology: it is a bundle of approaches to animating HTML, formatting, and browsers. So one cannot speak of an entire "incompatible" approach, one has to look at the constituent technologies. Both sides support HTML3.2, CSS, and so on. Netscape has experiments with JavaScript Style Sheets, Microsoft has theirs. Some parts differ naturally -- we are only beginning the requirements analysis phase of our new DOM (Document Object Model) Working Group.

It is never a matter of "how long the W3C took to endorse the proposal" -- we don't make standards, and we don't endorse.

We are an active partner in leading the evolution of the Web, which is why we have a staff of the world's best (sometimes only!) experts on Web technology. These are hard problems, and need to be solved carefully since we are designing the legacy systems of tomorrow, today.

"It's all the more frustrating since the two companies could solve the problem in about a week. Just lock the technical teams in a room with the mandate to compromise. But then, the Israelis and Palestinians could end their strife any time, too." -- the technical work from all sides -- and not just MS and NS -- belies these claims.

C. About Push Technology

The same dissection refutes the claim that incompatible push technology threatens the entire Internet. (Of course, push itself might aggravate existing bandwidth challenges, but W3C is addressing that in a concerted way, too). Push technology has many parts -- the TV guide, the content itself, the transport protocols. Many of the parts are strongly in common: a web page is still HTML + embedded bits whether in PointCast or IE4 or Netcaster. We are sponsoring extensive work into HTTP and HTTP caching to keep the protocols effective in these scenarios. And if there's competitive debate on 'channel listing', all the better -- we have a process in place for Members to raise these concerns such as the Submission process Microsoft has used to offer its CDF for review. And even then, the goal for W3C, and the Web, may not be to define any particular channel format. After all, their CDF proposal leverages XML, a superset of markup languages which could potentially render many format-compatibility questions moot. We're after big game here:

D. Moving Forward

We've been reading the reader comments, and it's clear you've hit a nerve by insisting on protecting our investment in Web technology through open standards. We're thrilled whenever anyone stands behind that vision and attracts followers (== users who buy products). We're all waiting to hear about your next moves...

We hope that you do make progress on your call for a petition to support common Web standards this Friday -- by supporting W3C!...

- Rohit Khare and Sally Khudairi, W3C

$Date: 1997/07/15 05:27:19 $