Getting agreements is hard (some thoughts on Matthew Butterick’s “The Bomb in the Garden” talk at TYPO San Francisco)

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UPDATE 2013-04-23: Brian Kardell has posted a related follow-up titled Off With Their Heads: Disband the W3C?. I recommend reading it.

These are some personal thoughts on Matthew Butterick’s “The BOMB in the GARDEN” talk at TYPO San Francisco“. They do not represent an official W3C position.

  • The W3C doesn’t “adopt” standards; the market does.
  • The W3C doesn’t really even create standards for Web browsers; browser vendors do.
  • The W3C brokers the creation of standards by providing a place for browser vendors and others to get together to reach agreement on details of new browsers technologies in such a way as they’re willing to actually implement them.
  • The W3C has zero means for “enforcing” standards for browser technologies.
  • Browser vendors make their own choices about what to implement and what not to, and when to implement, and how long they take to get around to implementing.
  • The plan Matthew Butterick seems to be proposing in this talk is that browser vendors quit working together to get agreement at any standards body & instead do… something else.
  • The only alternative he puts forward for that something-else part is a vague vision of “a web that’s organized entirely as a set of open-source software projects”.
  • He suggests Linux, Apache, Perl, Python, WordPress as precedents. None of those really have anything at all to do with client-side browser technologies. None of them is a model that could be used as a replacement for developing standards for browser technologies.
  • Standards are more than just software; they require very detailed, unambiguous specifications in order to achieve interoperability (if we have learned nothing else during the last 20 years, we have learned that—the hard way). And tons and tons of testing, too. And they require a lot of tough, time-consuming work to reach agreements on.
  • Getting agreements among implementors is the really hard part, and there’s no magic to make the process of reaching agreements quick, easy, and painless.
  • People disagree. Organizations disagree. The task of us all working together to try to overcome our disagreements is time-consuming, often very frustrating, and almost never easy.
  • Nowhere in Matthew Butterick’s talk is there a real proposal for how we could get agreements any quicker or easier or less painfully than we do now by following the current standards-development process.

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