Web Techniques Magazine
July 1997
Volume 2, Issue 7

Visual Designer

Mixed Messages at WWW6

By Lincoln D. Stein
lstein@genome.wi.mit.edu

I've just returned from the Sixth International World Wide Web Conference, where the theme was "Everyone, Everything, Connected." I carried back with me a neat coffee mug, a T-shirt, and a lot to ponder.

The International WWW Conference is the oldest of the Web conferences, a gathering ground for the geeks, nerds, and technoheads of the Web revolution, a place where technical papers on caching algorithms, electronic payment systems, and Web search engines replace the slick industry presentations one sees at other Web conferences. (An entire session was devoted to techniques for counting page hits!) In this academic atmosphere, WWW Consortium members debate standards, and avid amateurs assemble in impromptu "Birds of a Feather" meetings to share their technical know-how.

In the past I've found this type of meeting inspirational-its message is that a handful of visionary academics and amateurs, working together across the Internet, have created an entity that changed the face of the software industry and caught even such megaliths as Microsoft off guard. Examples aren't hard to find: Just think about Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen.

Here's an excerpt from a position piece that I wrote for the System Administration Networking and Security (SANS) '96 conference. After decrying certain industry leaders' habit of "enhancing" the HTML and HTTP standards in ways that gave their proprietary browsers an edge, I went on to say:

I think in the end the amateurs will win the day. There's too much strength in the anarchy and decentralization of the Web for a single software company to steal control. Let the networking professionals plot their "killer applications" and "integrated solutions." By the time they mature their plans, the amateurs will have done much better on their own.

Now, I'm not so confident. Despite the inclusionary theme of WWW6, the rumbling undertone was the increasing fragmentation of Web standards. Instead of "Everyone, Everything, Connected" it was more like "Everyone, Everything, Struggling to Find the Right Plug-in to Install." While the W3 Consortium and the Internet Engineering Task Force slowly toil forward to create interoperable standards, the corporations leapfrog one another, creating a welter of divergent "standards," each of which yields a short-term advantage in the race for Internet mindshare. This was most evident in the active-content developer sessions. Speaker after speaker warned of incompatibilities: Pages that use ActiveX controls won't display properly on non-Microsoft browsers. Cool pages that feature Java applets are duds when viewed with Java-naive browsers. Though both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator claim interoperability at the scripting level, it's a crapshoot to view a JavaScript-enhanced page through the eyes of a browser that doesn't feature a big "N" in the upper right-hand corner. And who can begin to keep track of the chaos that the browser plug-in market has created? Before long, every page on the Web will feature a half-page of icons exhorting the user to "Download XYZ software now!"

Even Java, that great cross-platform equalizer, is suffering the pangs of standards drift. While Sun enhances the versatility of Java applets with a more flexible security model and the JavaBeans code-signing protocol, Netscape is releasing a Netscape-specific Java library that contains a security model and code-signing framework that is similar to Sun's in some respects, but functionally incompatible.

Web authors are caught between a rock and a hard place. They can either design exciting, cutting-edge pages that only specific browser users can read, or they can design dull pages that are available to all.

Another case in point is HTML itself. HTML, long the territory that Web titans have fought to plant their flag on, is now drifting off course in a serious way. It has become a tradition for browser companies, including Netscape, Microsoft, and even WebTV, to tinker with HTML to provide features supported by only their browsers. However, the new trend towards absolute positioning of text and graphics elements is the death knell for interoperability. The irony is that the cascading style sheet, initially proposed by the standards bodies as a sensible way to separate HTML form from content, is now leading the way toward the breakdown of universal access. HTML started as a content-oriented markup language. An author would describe a document section as a "citation," for example, and the browser did the rest: Text-only browsers might underline the citation or put it in brackets; graphical browsers would italicize it or perform some user-specified rendering; super-smart browsers might even move the citation into a footnote or add it to an electronic bibliography.

The advantage of the original HTML standard was that readers could customize the appearance of their browser and always be confident that all pages would look and act alike. It also made the Web a friendly place for robots and active agents. Page designers, however, hated the shackles that HTML created, and begged for more control. In response, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created cascading style sheets, which allow designers to specify fonts and font sizes, custom paragraph styles, and indentation and leading. If the browser understands style sheets, it will try to comply; otherwise, the page looks no worse than ordinary HTML.

There's nothing wrong with this. The problem is that Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape's new Communicator product introduce browsers that extend style sheets to allow for layering (objects partially obscuring one another) and the absolute positioning of graphics and text elements. These enhancements make it possible for Web designers to create pages in a PageMaker or QuarkXPress-like environment, where each page element can be precisely positioned and controlled. It also means that pages designed around these extensions are almost guaranteed to be unreadable in incompatible browsers. In addition, advocates for the sight-impaired worry that these extensions will render programs that convert Web pages into spoken words completely ineffectual.

Similarly, in the fields of digital signing, electronic commerce, user authentication, and document integrity, industry is moving forward with a variety of ad hoc solutions on tracks parallel to, but often incompatible with, the standards-making activities of the W3C and Internet Engineering Task Force. In some cases, the tail is clearly wagging the dog. For example, the document that describes the absolute positioning extensions to cascading style sheets is authored jointly by representatives of Netscape and Microsoft and was submitted to the W3C standards process at the beginning of February 1997 (see "URL Resources"). Although the specification's introduction states that "[this specification] should not be implemented as part of a production system, but may be implemented on an experimental basis," Netscape and Microsoft introduced their updated browsers without skipping a beat. As with HTML 3.2, when the W3C ratified all the Netscape-specific HTML tags, it is inevitable that these extensions too will be ratified when the standards organizations are presented with a fait accompli.

Increasingly, I feel a disconnection between the academic and commercial sides of the Web. While industry moves forwards with technologies that make the Web more of a passive, TV-like medium (WebCasting and other forms of "push" technology spring to mind), many of the important innovations that have been made part of the proposed HTTP/1.1 standard, such as advanced content negotiation, secure user authentication, and better support for proxies and caches, are languishing on the drafting table. While the academic community frets over fundamental long-range problems such as the inexorable accumulation of "dead links" on the Web, software vendors worry about short-range problems-like whether their products are losing ground in the features wars.

The conference had many bright spots for those who still see the Web as a world where amateurs can have an impact. A new version of the freeware Apache server, far and away the market leader in Internet Web servers despite being produced and supported by a group of part-time volunteers, now supports the full HTTP/1.1 protocol. A Windows NT version of Apache is also in the works. A completely Java-based Web server, Jigsaw, has just been released by the W3C. Jigsaw is wholly extensible by adding Java classes, and performs surprisingly well despite Java's interpreted nature. The W3C has also released a freeware browser called Amaya. In addition to supporting HTTP/1.1 features, Amaya is equipped with WYSIWYG page-editing functions designed for collaborative Web-publishing projects. Amaya also has built-in support for the PNG (Portable Network Graphics) image format, useful functionality that few commercial browsers provide. Despite the siren song of ActiveX, Visual Basic, and integrated Web-development environments, it was evident that Perl and traditional CGI scripts were still overwhelmingly preferred by site developers attending the conference.

My irrational hope is that users will finally rebel against code and feature bloat, and rather than wait online to download a 20-MB package that provides even better ways for advertisers to deliver messages to the user's desktop, will turn to lean, interoperable browsers produced by small, medium, and large software vendors. Maybe this vision isn't so crazy. At the end of the conference, industry pundit Bob Metcalfe referred back to the address he gave at the Fourth International World Wide Web Conference, where he promised to eat his InfoWorld column if the Internet didn't collapse under its own weight during 1996. Sure enough, he shredded and ate his words in front of a packed auditorium. If that can happen, anything can.

URL RESOURCES

WWW6 Conference Program and Proceedings
www6conf.slac.stanford.edu/

HTTP/1.1 Protocol
www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Protocols/rfc2068/rfc2068

Cascading Style Sheets
www.w3.org/pub/WWW/TR/REC-CSS1

Absolute Positioning Extensions to CSS:
www.w3.org/pub/WWW/TR/WD-positioning

Apache Web Server
www.apache.org/

Amaya Web Browser
www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Amaya/

Jibsaw Web Server
www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Jigsaw/

New Features in Internet Explorer 4.0
www.microsoft.com/ie/ie40/

New Features in Netscape Communicator
developer.netscape.com/library/documentation/communicator/comdocs.html


Lincoln is an MD and PhD who divides his life between practicing pathology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and writing about the World Wide Web. His next book, The Pocket Guide to Web Searching, will be published by Addison-Wesley this fall. He can be reached at lstein@genome.wi.mit.edu.

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Last modified: 2/5/97