Web Standardization Update
(By Way of New Zealand!)

By Carl Cargill, UniNews online Standards Correspondent


As many of you who have read my columns know, the New Zealanders have a particularly strange sense of humor. This humor manifests itself in many ways - the choice of a flightless animal as a national bird, the enjoyment of rugby as a sport of grace and elegance, and the yearly invitations to me to present on standardization at the annual UniForum New Zealand Conference. This year was no different - one could almost hear the planning committee saying "We could invite Cargill down again this year to talk about standards. He's so dreadfully earnest" - and then collapsing in gales of laughter. Anyway, the invitation was issued and away I went - this time flying Quantas, which is, as every movie buff knows, the "safest airline".

One of the reasons that I participate so willingly at UniForum New Zealand is the nature of the conference. Attendance this year was about 150 paid attendees - and about 40 speakers from the U.S, New Zealand, and Australia. Among the foreign guests, Dr. Bob Glass (Sun) did several presentations, as did Bill Cheswick (Lucent). Australia's Microsoft NT Product Manager gave an interesting presentation (a Microsoft employee with a sense of humor and great courage!), Anne Buzbee (Sun) gave an informative presentation on distributed computing in Fortune 100 companies, and Rolf Jester (IDC) did a good New Zealand market analysis. But the real appeal of UniForum New Zealand is in the presentations by the New Zealanders, who are discussing their business and application problems and activities with other NZ IT and business professionals - who were there and were willing to try to analyze problems and to help solve them. This is the core of UniForum New Zealand and the reason for its continued strength and growth; it is a non-commercial (not vendor dominated) conference which emphasizes the solution of "user problems". Presenters are allowed to announce that they are from a company - and then, no more commercialization is permitted. The crowds are - on occasion - equipped with noise makers to drown out vendor sales presentations made under the guise of a "technology presentation". It is this type of discipline - the focusing on users problems, the sharing of possible solutions, and the camaraderie- that marks UniForum New Zealand and keeps it successful.

I do not think that the show would travel well - New Zealand is a small nation, and the bonds that unite the participants are far stronger than the bonds that would cause them to sunder. The need for cooperation in New Zealand is much higher than is the same need in the United States - for the time being. However, I believe that the show contains a valuable lesson for UniForum as a whole. The idea of initial cooperation as a basis for later competition - the essence of the conference - is also (surprise) the basis of standardization, especially in the arena of Web Standardization, the topic of my plenary presentation.

The Web is in pretty good shape and standardization is occurring apace. The key to much that is happening on the Web is to realize that the Web is no longer capable of being controlled by any one entity or interest - it is now essential to many businesses.

Web Standardization Update
The key to Web standardization is interface standardization - standardizing on a single specification that permits interoperation of the various unique (but still standards based) implementations. The idea isn't really new - the automobile industry has been using it for years. The Web - being built on an Internet foundation - has the infrastructure in place that it needs to advance - as long as providers remember that they are supposed to be building on a common base and competing on implementation. The Web is in pretty good shape and standardization is occurring apace. The key to much that is happening on the Web is to realize that the Web is no longer capable of being controlled by any one entity or interest - it is now essential to many businesses. Because of commercialization, the Web will no longer change as quickly or as easily as some would like. The installed base of 50 million or so users acts as both a powerful source of momentum to spur development - and a natural restraint on startling "new" (and occasionally gratuitous) innovation.

The organizations engaged in standardization on the Web are legion - but several activities stand out. The first is, of course, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and its activities on HTTP 1.1. If properly implemented, HTTP 1.1 will make the web better and faster. Jim Gettys (W3C and Digital) and Henrik Frystyk Nielsen (W3C) have done excellent work analyzing the impact that HTTP 1.1 can have on the Web. The other activities of the IETF (such as calendaring, news, security, and printing) are all progressing - and providing the infrastructure for continued reasoned growth.

ECMA, with its standardization of JavaScript, deserves mention as a Web standardization participant, as well as the creator of the ideal statement of how cooperation and competition can work to create "goodness". The ECMA effort in JavaScript standardization saw Netscape, Sun, Microsoft, and Borland all cooperating to produce an interface standardization specification which will provide the basis for competing implementations of the JavaScript scripting language. Users will no longer have to choose between J-Script and JavaScript or any of the other JavaScript based scripting languages available. With the standardization of JavaSoft, all of the implementations will be based on the common JavaScript interface standard that Guy Steele (Sun) wrote for the ECMA activity. (ECMA TC 39 activities are described at the ECMA web site.)

At the same time, the object wars are slowing down; the OMG and Microsoft are beginning to come to terms. Microsoft, still waiting for activity in the Active Group at The Open Group, is beginning to treat with Chris Stone and the OMG to ensure, if not interoperability, at least not mutual and assured destruction. So, "the objectification" of the Web grows.

Java, still in Sun's possession, is probably moving towards standardization as Sun promotes itself as a provider of Publicly Available Specifications. Despite protests from some companies who fear this, it looks like ISO/IEC JTC 1 (the premier formal IT standards body) will approve Sun's request, and Java standardization can begin.

Finally, there is W3C, which has successfully produced HTML 3.2 and is working on HTML 4.0. Cascading style sheets are out, and being accepted slowly by the market. Other activities are coming - one of the most interesting is the Web Accessibility Initiative which focuses on making the Web accessible by all. And the growth of the XML working group - and the release of viable specifications - probably marks an underlying shift in the way things are being done on the Web. W3C is experiencing growing pains - and it shows it its ability to influence the market. While the IETF, OMG and even ECMA were known, W3C was the "unknown" consortium of the web.

In conclusion - the standardization of the Web is proceeding according to a traditional scheme. As the Web becomes more and more complex - and as the Web becomes more and more central to business, it will see its control and change become more and more dispersed. Heterogeneous systems - from IBM mainframes and UNIX workstations to NCs and to PCs - will need to integrate seamlessly. It is a complex standards problem - and like a complex problem, there is no facile, easy, and simple answer. However, the answer is evolving, as are standards - and this evolution will change the way that we look at the world.

Carl Cargill is Standards Program Manager at Netscape Communications, Inc. and can be reached at carl@netscape.com.



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