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Your secretary wants Web standards too

August 13, 2001

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Most of the talk about Web standards is coming from commercial designers focused on external Web sites. It’s a diverse world out there, and we want browsers to support Web standards so we don’t have to worry about whether there’s a difference in the CSS glitches between Netscape 4.77 for the Mac and Netscape 4.73 for Unix, or whatever. We want Web standards so we can use stylesheets and XML to truly separate content from presentation. This makes our sites trimmer, easier to maintain and easier to repurpose. It means our readers can view our content in new ways, not just in standard-PC-monitor mode. (Do you get hits from AvantGo? What about text readers for the visually impaired? How would you know?)

On an intranet, where the IS department mandates a particular browser, you might think that this doesn’t matter. You can just design for whatever works in that corporate-approved browser and not worry about what the likes of CodeBitch, RudeParrot, Zeldman or whoever think.

Bulldust.

Standards are even more important on intranets. Designing for an intranet does not mean designing for one browser. At the least, it means designing for a current browser and all future versions of that browser. Most bureaucratic corporations are conservative in their provision of technology to their plebs (that is, the non-IT staff). So they’re using the “safe” choice, Internet Explorer, usually Version 5.0 but sometimes Version 4.0 if they’re real sticks in the mud. But just wait till they start shifting over to IE6. There goes your designs for a broken box model. And then there will be some future version, no doubt, that does the Document Object Model properly and breaks all your JavaScripts. Browser manufacturers are slowly yielding to the pressure for standards coming from commercial Web designers. Intranet-oriented Web designers cannot help but be affected by this.

Oh sure, redesigning the intranet is a grand project that can eat some budget and look good on the internal reports. For most corporate bureaucrats, that kind of make-work is good. To my mind, it’s a criminal waste of someone’s time and someone else’s money. And whether those other people are customers, shareholders or taxpayers, Web professionals have a duty to eliminate that waste.

And of course, there’s always the risk that the intranet page you carefully designed for IE5 ends up being approved for the external site, too. Don’t assume it won’t happen. Sure, you can handle tweaking a few pages for worldwide consumption, but whole sections of your intranet? Intranet developers need standards, too.

Why is the Web good? Why is HTML good? Why does everyone just know that XML is going to be really, really big? Because platform-independent standards mean that content can be truly accessible regardless of vendor. The Web has the potential to democratise information, whether it’s courses from MIT or information from your local council. That potential won’t be fully realised while Web pages are static, full of bloat and designed with a top-of-the-line Pentium and big screen in mind.

Even if the information on your intranet is never going to be public, it still reduces the cost of your organisation’s internal workings. (This is CodeBitch’s First Law of Technology and Productivity: the technologies that truly enhance productivity are the ones that employees smuggle in behind their managers’ or IT department’s backs.) How many internal phone calls and e-mails are simply to find out information that one person has but his or her colleagues don’t? Intranets can cut through that, allowing the people who need information to get it quickly, and the people who have it to get on with their work.

But it has to be an integrated part of people’s work. Everyone has to own the intranet. It can’t be something that the IT people or a specialised Web team run. That just creates a new information priesthood – the last thing corporations need. And it’s the last thing Web developers should want to become. The last time corporations had groups of people with responsibility for creating standard corporate documents, they were called “the typing pool.” Somehow I don’t think being the 21st-century typing pool fits in with Web designers’ view of themselves as creative professionals – do you?

That’s yet another reason why it’s important that browsers adhere to standards. Professional Web designers and developers might be happy to learn all the nuances of what works in Netscape and why they have to commit certain hacks. Some of them even hold onto that knowledge as a sign of their professionalism, instead of the infernal and unnecessary nuisance that it really is. But the people who create documents, the kinds of documents that should be on corporate intranets, are not full-time Web designers. They don’t want to futz with Netscape craziness or the Internet Explorer box model fandango. They want a suite of stylesheets and templates that conform to corporate standards, and beyond that they want the technology to get out of their way. They don’t mind looking at some kind of book to learn stuff, as long as the book can give them a straight answer about what to expect from different HTML and CSS elements. That’s not possible with the current browser mess.

Over the past few years, I have taught HTML to dozens of people, people who weren’t big computer buffs. Some of them were “symbolic analysts,” smart and university-educated, and some of them were clerical support staff who never went on to college. All of them could understand the basics of HTML and applying (if not designing) stylesheets with a minimum of instruction. All of them would be perfectly capable of generating standard corporate documents in HTML or XHTML format, presuming the right tools existed. None of them have time to deal with the browser-bug crap I deal with every day. Sure, they could ask me, but how many organisations have a CodeBitch in their midst?

I don’t want to have to go to my boss’ secretary – or any of my colleagues – and tell her that she has to deal with some complicated hack to get around the bugs in browsers. I want to be able to show her a page out of some book on CSS and say, “If you want a margin on this particular kind of paragraph, define a class and use the margin style,” and I want her to get the result she expects.

Isn’t that what you want too?

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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