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Workgroups for Windows

The World Wide Web Consortium that grew out of these discussions is not a standards organization in the mold of such traditional outfits as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the International Standards Organization (ISO). Think, instead, of W3C as a group of technologists who give advice to director Berners-Lee, who consults with the consortium’s members and then issues his recommendations. Legally speaking, Berners-Lee’s recommendations have no teeth; even consortium members are under no obligation to implement them. In practice, however, W3C’s recommendations carry a moral authority that is the closest thing the Internet has to law. Microsoft, Netscape and a host of other companies have pledged to implement the standards in their products. And this moral authority has given rise to the W3C’s technical work-which is almost universally praised-as well as its policy-making activities, which have generated considerable controversy.

Both the technical and policy activities take place within the same structure: a set of working groups, each set up to address a specific issue. The need for a working group is identified by either Berners-Lee, a staff member or an outside company. Berners-Lee approves the creation of the group and appoints a chair, who invites other members. The working group’s discussion takes place via electronic mail, weekly teleconferences and occasional face-to-face meetings. At some point, a person from the group volunteers to edit the final written specification. The document is distributed to the W3C membership, which votes on the recommendation. Following this final vote, the W3C’s director can accept the measure, and make it an official W3C technical recommendation, or pass.

To get a sense of the technical aspect of what these groups grapple with, consider the disarray over HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the set of codes that determine how Web pages look and behave. If you look at the raw text of a Web page, you’ll see plain text and many words in angle brackets, like <i>. These words in angle brackets are called “tags.” They tell a Web browser how to typeset and display information that it finds. (The <i> tag, for example, tells the browser to display text in italics.) For the Web to work properly, all Web browsers need to implement more or less the same set of tags. Unfortunately, the original Web browsers out of CERN and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois omitted many useful features, such as the ability to display information in tables.

When Netscape released its first Web browser, the company added a few new HTML tags. When Microsoft followed, introducing its Internet Explorer browser with Windows 95, it adopted some of Netscape’s tags, rejected others, and introduced some new ones of its own. Both organizations said that they would work with the consortium to have their proprietary tags accepted into the HTML standard. But until such a standard was adopted, companies trying to publish information on the Web were in a quagmire. If they took advantage of the new advanced features in Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer, their Web pages wouldn’t look right to somebody using the other browser.

To make matters worse, Netscape and Microsoft promoted themselves by celebrating their incompatibilities. Netscape peppered the Web with logos saying “Best Viewed with Netscape Navigator,” which meant the Web site used some feature that Microsoft didn’t support. Microsoft, meanwhile, allowed Web sites to display a “Best Viewed with Internet Explorer” logo if the Web site used a feature that Netscape’s browser lacked.

Into this mess stepped the W3C’s HTML working group. The group-with representatives from Netscape and Microsoft, among other companies-quickly agreed on a modest goal: codify into a single standard the HTML tags that were in use on the Internet at the time (May 1995). “We didn’t do a lot of design work,” recalls Dan Connolly, the W3C staff member who chaired the committee. “We just said what’s in, what’s out, let’s write it up.” The specification was written not so much for the people creating Web browsers as for companies authoring Web pages, so they could know what HTML tags they should use and which they should avoid.

The HTML working group moved fast; its final specification was adopted by the W3C in May 1997. And it did “enduring” work, at least by the standards of the Web: What the group settled on is pretty much what is used on the Web today. Meanwhile, the W3C recently finished the standardization of HTML 4.0-an excellent standard that will gain in use as more and more Web users upgrade to Netscape Navigator 4.0 and Internet Explorer 4.0.

On the whole, W3C’s members are pleased with the technical work the consortium has undertaken. They are particularly encouraged that W3C has managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that beset other standards organizations-projects that drag on because of infighting or because they are overly ambitious. “The W3C defines projects and sets goals that are relatively short-term,” says Don Wright, who sits on the W3C’s Advisory Council Committee on behalf of Lexmark, the printer manufacturer. “Something gets delivered.”

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