So what happens now?

Back in November I wrote the following in an email to a mailing list as part of a discussion about The Web Standards Project, reading some of the fallout on the web over the last few days reminded me of that discussion, which seems more relevant now than before,

“When WaSP was at its most effective, we all knew who the “bad guy” was. We had a common mission, our goals were easily articulated and everyone involved was passionate about them. When you can say “X is bad Y is good” it’s pretty
easy […] Things are not so black and white now, and not only are we trying to cover a vast landscape of different issues – and a huge range of abilities and understandings within the designer/developer community, but we don’t all agree on what the big problems are. Ask a group of WaSP members what they think about HTML5 (for example) and you’ll get totally opposing opinions. WaSP members have never spoken for WaSP – we speak for ourselves as members of WaSP – but in the past you could have been sure that 95% of the group were behind you. That isn’t the case now.”

When Drew McLellan and I were asked to join WaSP we did so to form the Dreamweaver Task Force. We had already both been vocal about our support for web standards within the Dreamweaver community, and were part of the group of developers that Macromedia invited onto their Beta programs. With WaSP backing we went through the Beta of Dreamweaver pointing out the things that didn’t validate and logging them as bugs. To their credit Macromedia were receptive and fixed a lot of those problems and continued improving Dreamweaver to the point where it could produce standards compliant code “out of the box”.

However, it was pretty easy back then. The great work WaSP had already done meant that companies were starting to get it, were starting to realise that this was ultimately going to be important for their bottom line and there was plenty of low hanging fruit. We were just going down a list of things that were obviously incorrect and asking for them to be fixed – no argument there, there wasn’t another point of view – the only issue was whether there was a feasible way to fix something in that version of the product. The relationship between WaSP members and Macromedia was open and understood by both parties – they never attempted to use our involvement as an endorsement of their product and we honoured their NDA during Beta and in what we discussed once the new product was launched.

For Zeldman (a person I greatly respect and who invited Drew and myself onto WaSP all those years ago) to call out Drew and compare the current issue to the work that we did with Dreamweaver under his leadership, is unfair. Although the work we did for Macromedia was under NDA, other people in WaSP were also asked to be under NDA and we had a member of the main steering group (Dori Smith) working with us. So if we started to do anything contrary to the spirit of WaSP we had a more senior member there to pull us up about it. When we posted any announcement about the product we would get approval of the content first. No-one told us we had to do that, it just seemed like the right thing to do if something was to be put out as an announcement on the WaSP website.

In contrast the announcement made on ALA was done without even passing the eyes of the steering committee meaning that WaSP members who didn’t agree could only post to their own blogs to disclaim responsibility. It is not the case (as far as I know) that people refused to sign NDAs. What reason would anyone have for doing that? Most of us sign numerous NDAs in a year in the course of business. No-one is “running away from a broken window shouting ‘I didn’t do it’”, we just don’t want people who are now feeling very let down by WaSP for seeming to endorse this proposal thinking that WaSP as a whole think its a great idea.

Personally I think WaSP have been played by Microsoft. I don’t know whether the non-invitation by Microsoft to co-leads was a deliberate thing, it has certainly worked in Microsoft’s favour. It doesn’t wash with me that the pending announcement could not have been shared with more WaSP members in the few days prior to it being made. A List Apart had it in their hands at that point, why not WaSP? I feel that ALA could have presented the issue in a more even-handed way, perhaps also posting an article from someone who disagreed with the proposal and could argue their case in a coherent way. I believe that approach would have engendered more useful discussion.

So what happens now? Today there are many issues that WaSP could and should be involved in. However I don’t believe it will ever be the grand campaigning movement of times past because times have changed. The ideas pushed by WaSP in the early days have become part of the mainstream view. That isn’t to say that every web developer is committed to or cares about “web standards”, but in terms of authoring tools, platforms and browsers there is generally a goal to attain standards support – along with lots of excuses why we didn’t quite make it! WaSP members are still doing great work with Adobe, within education and in other areas, however we seem to have lost that cohesive drive to get visible things done, which leads to apathy, and I’m as much at fault there as anyone.

So, a question. If there was one thing you would want to see WaSP tackling, what is it and why? Is it simply more education within the developer community? A particular issue within browsers or authoring tools? If WaSP members are supposed to represent the web standards community in some way (and I’ve always felt that to be my remit – I’m just a web developer, no ivory towers here) then I’d like to know what the community feels are the hot topics right now. Perhaps we can find consensus from the wider web standards movement, and use all the passion generated in the last few days to really get things moving again.

Laura on the 26 Jan 2008:

THE hot topic is or should be HTML 5. Especially scrutiny of accessibility features.

http://www.paciellogroup.com/blog/?p=26

patrick h. lauke on the 26 Jan 2008:

sadly, i think the current debacle points to a certain lack of direction or management within WaSP’s higher echelons. despite being nominal co-lead of the WaSP ATF, i’m not an “actual” WaSP, just a task force member…so i’m not privy to any discussions that happen behind the scenes. but i have to wonder how the hell this current situation came to be in the first place.
back in early december, i put a suggestion forward to drew and kimberly, asking if it would be worth considering calling out to the community that we supposedly represent (i’m 100% with you on that), asking web developers themselves what they see as WaSP’s role today and what they think WaSP should be focusing on…sadly, despite two follow-up emails, this request simply went unanswered. to me, that’s a failure in leadership/management. there may have been good reasons for not committing to it, but a simple acknowledgment that they were thinking about the issue would have been welcome…

Chris Mills on the 26 Jan 2008:

It is a really interesting post Rachel, which I think will touch a lot of people. I personally feel like MS has not only played WASP, but is in the process of trying to play the entire community (yeah, I work for Opera, so I’m biased, I would say that, blah blah…)

But I am very surprised at the way it panned out with the whole ALA announcement any everything.

It does seem like the WASP is suffering from a whole host of issues from different camps, such as apathy, and as you say, unclear direction. It is a lot harder now it isn’t so obvious who the bad guys are.

My personal experience:

1. Myself and my colleague David Storey tried to talk to WaSP about setting up a mobile task force to deal with mobile web development issues, but after afew mails, it just didn’t seem to go anywhere (correct me if I’m wrong.) Have you guys still got that in mind?

2. Back when I worked for friends of ED, I tried to get the ETF to help me tech review and promote an educational text teaching proper web standards development, for universities to use, etc. Stephanie Troeth was very helpful, but the others that said they’d help out ended up being completely non-responsive and therefore stalling the project horribly. I’m doing the same thing now at Opera, but will be releasing it online to use for free. Can I count on the ETF’s help this time? Do they even exist any more? ;-)

Matt Wilcox on the 26 Jan 2008:

It’s a shame to see internal disagreement and the level of confusion that there seems to be at WaSP. I think your article sums it all up pretty well.

Personally I would like to see WaSP getting the W3C in order. HTML5 and CSS3 are an ongoing mess, and the W3C seem incapable of listening to the people that will be using the tools daily. I appreciate that there have been minor attempts at soliciting advice from web designers recently, and am grateful to the W3C members that are going down this path, but they could really do with more direct help. We need clearer communication in and out of the W3C, and the W3C in general need a better regard for the people they are designing these tools for. “We cant do parent selectors” is not good enough. “Comment on our technical specification” is not good enough. The advanced layout module is not good enough. The general attitude over there is not good enough. Again, with apologies to the few W3C members who get this, and have been trying to sort it out. There are not enough of you guys I’m afraid.

Dean Edwards on the 26 Jan 2008:

It doesn’t wash with me that the pending announcement could not have been shared with more WaSP members in the few days prior to it being made.
This is the problem for me. I wasn’t aware of the pending announcement and I am nominally the MSTF lead.
I agree with you. Microsoft have played the WaSP and are using its name to their advantage. If they are going to behave like this in the future then it might be best to sever our relationship with them.

Ben Ward on the 26 Jan 2008:

There are so many voices shouting at once around this issue. I’ve resisted blogging about it myself having decided that being one more echo of the ‘WTF’ variety is probably less helpful.

The fallout of this situation is pretty bleak, but rescuable I think, if those involved are able to put the time in.

I have to say, Rachel, I share the sentiment about WaSP being played by Microsoft. I can’t bring myself to believe that something so malicious and vile was intentionally planned by anyone inside that organisation, but the way X-UA has been communicated is, regardless of intent, extremely manipulative of the web standards community.

• Microsoft’s own announcement praises and credits the entire Web Standards project for the outcome. I felt desperately uncomfortable reading it, effectively seeing the blame shifted, or credibility sought through name association.

• Similarly, the ALA article presents the HTTP header solution as something that’s wonderful for the web, solves our web developer’s problems, and that everything would be great if the other browsers did it too. It’s just outright misleading, dodging the truth that this is a problem of Microsoft’s own making.

The problems with those miscommunications are separate from this, though. The damage to the reputation of WaSP (and ALA) is done. It’s stirred up interest, and for all the bull, it’s highlighted legitimate problems that WaSP has to solve too (albeit often in the wrong tone, such is Zeldman’s want).

WaSP should survive, but needs to better communicate that the work it does now is smaller scale, that’s not guerilla warfare anymore. And then, there’ve got to be updates. Status. Which as I too well know, is desperately hard to provide reliably in a volunteer organisation. But somehow, it needs to happen. People can see little logs of what a TF is attempting to do. Maybe they should have Twitter accounts.

Also, almost from a presentational point of view, where TFs exist under NDA, that should be clear. Where something like the the Microsoft TF is deployed with no means of reporting back, it has to be put across differently from a group that is able to operate in the open. Maybe it’s management of expectations, but if now or in future WaSP sends a group of ninjas behind enemy lines under the cover of darkn… NDA… then followers of WaSP need to understand straight off that any results do not immediately represent the group, but that group endorsement will follow, promptly, where appropriate.

If you can only be as open as printing the words ‘Sorry, we cannot be open’ on the TF, then it should still be done.

If the people required know they can commit to it, then it’s probably a moment for WaSP to stand up, hold up its hands for being too quiet, then take a deep breath, state what it is doing right now, and then try to maintain it, and the communications. What’s gone wrong can’t necessarily be undone or resolved, so just acknowledge it, and then walk forwards.

Once people know for sure what the WaSP is actively doing, they’ll be in a better position to say what it should be doing.

Jesse Rodgers on the 26 Jan 2008:

I have been on the Dreamweaver Task Force for some time now. Things are a lot easier with the Adobe Developers taking standards based development seriously — just Spry had issues, but that is changing thanks to Adobe folks like Scott Fegette.

This has nothing to do with Drew but I think overall the formal WaSP members just aren’t as ‘community’ focused as they could be. Work commitments are largely to blame I imagine but I have a feeling SXSW has a lot to do with it too. Why? Well if you don’t go there and meet people then it can feel like you are moved outside of the loop. Online personalities start with inside jokes that started over beer in Austin and things start to appear elitist.

This isn’t the reality, just a perception. I would say the first thing to do is distance WaSP from any particular conference unless it runs its own break even event.

Go back to the community, ask them, revisit the purpose and goal of WaSP, maybe redefine. Being in the middle of rebuilding a volunteer run organization with 1400 paying members, I will admit its not easy. But its required and possible.

Jonathan Kahn on the 26 Jan 2008:

Rachel,

Although it looks like WaSP has been “played” by Microsoft, I don’t think that’s what actually happened. Based on blog posts from Jeffrey, Eric and Molly, it looks more like Molly’s pressure for openness convinced MS that they could discuss this feature before shipping — and then Aaron (understandably) took the opportunity to get it out in the open as soon as possible.

ALA just assumed that WaSP was fully informed on the issue, and that it was a done deal — and then was shocked at the response. A major misunderstanding, but it doesn’t look deliberate to me.

I agree with you that the implied endorsement of this proposal by WaSP is what makes it unpalatable — presented almost as a “web standard”. If MS had insisted on doing it, and WaSP acquiesced but didn’t actively endorse it, there would have been less controversy.

I think the most positive outcome of this is the openness of your post — it’s surely a good idea to talk about the issues WaSP faces, instead of hoping they’ll go away.

Cyril Doussin on the 28 Jan 2008:

Hi Rachel,

Thanks for bringing back the discussion onto a constructive path.
As Laura said in the first comment to this post I believe HTML 5 should be the priority. We all want it out the door. Badly. And more importantly, as the spec states, having the spec finalised would mean that two implementations have been created.
This is really what we want to see happen first, and what WaSP should probably put its weight behind.

John Harvey on the 06 Mar 2008:

Rachel,
I am rarely moved by articles, books or the web to write in respect of design (probably because I am in the infancy of my designing life). However, I bought a copy of the CSS Anthology about a year ago, read it from cover to cover, buggered about with my site and am now a CSS convert, all because of your book. I really believe it is the easiest and most comprehensive CSS authority out there (and trust me I have looked at quite a few). This then led me to W3C and all the accessibility and standards issues. I recently purchased CS3, the student version (I am studying web design part-time), whilst I am still jumping around the various tutorials, CS3 is a huge step in the right direction for validation and accessibility for the amateur and some of the more so called professionals out there. If I had been part of the incorporation of the validation and accessibility of CS3 I would be very proud indeed. The web is never going to be all singing from the same song sheet due the diversity of cultures, age, browsers etc. But and it is a large but, I think what you have brought to the table has been pretty awesome. As for HTML5, well I guess we shall see! All I want to say is, well done you! I for one admire what you have done and achieved. Regards John.

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