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CodeBitch in the Briar Patch

March 11, 2002

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Even after all the shouting is over, many people still don’t get Web standards. It works in IE5, they say, so why should I worry any more than that? Or, as someone (presumably without a grammar checker) once said on a mailing list I subscribe to:

And as for all this mac os 9 crap, I could care less about a mac and IE for the mac. I support Windows IE and Netscape everybody else who wants to run linux [...] and Mac OS whatever is on their own thats their problem. Opera is not a mainstream browser you worry about whether or not the less than 1 percent of the web’s population who uses it can view your webpages, personally I could care less. They can download ie it’s free.

But does it work in IE6, now accounting for as many of one in five of your readers? Will it work in IE7? Microsoft has dropped support for things that aren’t W3C Recommendations, like Netscape-style plugins, in the past, and they may do so again. While the reasons for such decisions are no doubt different from the motives of those who advocate standards, note that Microsoft has yet to actually drop support for any existing W3C Recommendation or other Web standard, and they have proposed additions to other standards that have been adopted.

It’s this need for forward compatibility that caused Web authors around the world to start lobbying browser manufacturers to implement the W3C recommendations like CSS, DOM and XHTML. It’s also why the ECMAScript standardised version of JavaScript, XML and SVG will become more important in the future.

Saying you don’t care about standards or about minor browsers is like throwing your competition into Brer Rabbit’s briar patch. Sure, keep on with the make-work of designing multiple sites for different browsers, keep on coding convoluted custom content managers that don’t even work. Be my guest. Just don’t complain when the contracts stop rolling in.

The Web bubble burst in 2000, or last year at the latest. Lots of good people are unemployed. And when good people with a large set of sharp skills are out of work, what does that say for the job prospects of the not-so-good? The short answer is that tag soup and ill-considered use of PageMill or FrontPage won’t pay the bills anymore (although I’m told that fixing up other people’s FrontPage spew pays reasonably well).

In the mid to late 1990s, some specialist design firms got away with charging literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for cruddy, slow-loading sites that didn’t even work properly – yes, this happened to a university of my acquaintance, and let’s not forget Boo.com. Those days are gone. People aren’t going to put up with paying for a site revamp every time a new browser comes out, and wishing all the non-IE browsers would go away is no use when IE6 frequently behaves differently to IE5.

It’s all so reminiscent of the DTP revolution of the 1980s. Perhaps my background as a Mac user, who got into Macs back then because of my interest in print design, is what lets me see the parallel. At that time, there was much griping from long-standing designers that DTP let amateurs produce some steaming pile of junk for less than the designers used to charge, and steal away the business of stupid clients who didn’t know the difference. Secretaries with PageMaker or MS Publisher were a kind of bogey to these designers. The secretaries didn’t know how to lay out a page properly, it was said. They didn’t know anything about typography, they foisted “ransom-note” design on people, and so on.

Strangely, the world of print publishing didn’t lose its professionalism. The people with good traditional skills very often learned the new technology, cut their costs and found business booming. Sure, the roneo market graduated to MS Publisher and a photocopier, but good design became within the reach of organisations who hadn’t been able to afford professional-level printing and design before. The cake got bigger, and the average quality of documents increased even if some got a bit sloppier. Meanwhile, the DTP-ers themselves didn’t stay amateur for long, but learned from the existing experts. DTP became the latest in a string of new industries that allowed independent producers to start small and drag themselves up by their bootstraps. (Case in point: formerly impoverished single mother Robin Williams, who went on to show other DTPers how to do good design.) The industry matured and stopped being a special case of print publishing, but just a set of technologies that the whole industry uses. The good DTPers aspired to professionalism and while the bad ones moved into other fields – probably Web design!

So too it is with the Web, and will be with desktop video. Clients are learning that twelve year olds’ efforts with FrontPage and rotating-button GIFs don’t constitute serious design. Clients are learning that it shouldn’t take thousands of dollars for a minor update or even a revamp of the design. Private businesses don’t see the point of paying as much for their new Web site as they paid for their first Web site, and public sector institutions have rarely ever had that kind of money. They’ll be looking to pay less, but they’re also looking for professionalism.

The people who make good in this environment will be the ones who work out ways to reduce their development costs. This, I think, is one of the reasons for the myriad of CSS-heavy, often table-free blogs that have been popping up all over the Web. You know the ones, with their small Verdana text (almost always), complete absence of JavaScript rollover flaming logo rubbish, excellent content, and very, very silly domain names.

Some of these folk are working, some aren’t, but all of them are experimenting with their blogs to understand the standards and how to take advantage of them. As browser developers make good on their promises of standards compliance, these will be the people undercutting the tag-soup generators who weren’t paying attention around the turn of the century. These will be the people who won’t have to retest their sites in Opera 9 or Mozilla 3 or Nokia-XHTML 12.1; things will just work. Meanwhile, the people who thought that 10,000 font tags, multiple versions of sites and “Best Viewed With...” buttons constituted cutting-edge design will have to move on. (Probably to desktop video. Lord knows there are already plenty of wankers in the film industry, a few more won’t hurt.)

I’ve previously said that if you can’t even balance your tags, you should get out of the industry; but don’t listen to me on that count, listen to market forces. Because market forces will ensure that it happens.

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

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