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How to develop a W3C standard

October 21, 2016.
World Wide Web Consortium.

Nowadays, all the main technologies used on the Web follow World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards. Be it HTML, CSS, or SVG, its implementation must follow the rules set out in a standards document called a W3C Recommendation. The goal of these rules is to ensure identical behaviour across all navigators and platforms. If you’ve ever wondered how Web standards are defined, read on.

The Consortium

Founded in 1994 at MIT’s instigation by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, the W3C’s mission is to bring the Web to its full potential through guidelines and open and interoperable protocols. Simply put, it aims to avoid technological anarchy on the Web.

The W3C is a consortium of organizations which, at last count, totalled 420 members, including universities, government organizations, foundations, associations, and companies of all sizes, ranging from IBM, with its 378,000 employees, to Disruptive Innovations, a single-person company. All members of the W3C enjoy the same weight and rights, while paying variable membership fees, depending on their size and country of origin (companies from richer countries pay higher fees). In Canada, smaller and not-for-profit companies with fewer than 10 employees pay yearly dues of US$2,250, while very large companies (over one billion dollars in revenue) pay US$77,000. If Spiria were to become a member, our dues would be US$7,900. But members’ actual investment goes beyond just membership fees, since they send representatives to the consortium’s various working groups. In other words, members pay for the right to work for the W3C. But in fact, members are investing in the openness of the Web and their vision of the future of technology.

Member companies are extremely diverse, their one point in common being an interest in the development of Web technologies. Among the most familiar names are Adobe, Akamai, American Express, Apple, Baidu, BlackBerry, Bloomberg, Boeing, BBC, Canon, Cisco, Comcast, Dell, Deutsche Telekom, Dolby Laboratories, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Fujitsu, Google, Hachette Livre, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, HBO, IBM, Intel, Intuit, Jaguar Land Rover, Konica Minolta, LG, Microsoft, NEC, Netflix, NHK, Nielsen, Orange, Panasonic, PayPal, Samsung Electronics, Siemens, SoftBank, Sony, Target, Telefónica, Toshiba, Twitter, Verisign, Verizon, Viacom, Visa, The Walt Disney Company, Worldpay, Yahoo, and Yandex.

The Consortium is jointly administered by four institutions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence Laboratory (Cambridge, MA, USA), the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (Sophia Antipolis, France), Keiō University (Tokyo, Japan) and Beihang University (Beijing, China). WC3’s 75 employees are spread out over three main sites: Cambridge (MA, USA), Sophia-Antipolis (France) and Tokyo (Japan).

The Working Groups

W3C standards are defined by now 38 specialized working groups, some of which are more active than others. Some are well-known: Web Platform Working Group (for HTML language development), Cascading Style Sheets Working Group, SVG Working Group). Lesser-known working groups work on such diverse issues as cryptography for Web applications, protocols for social networks or on-line payments, internationalization, audio APIs, etc.

Working groups are guided by a “charter” defining their mission, scope of activities, specifications to be worked on, and operating procedures. Working groups are presided over by one or two chairpersons employed by member organizations, and by a “team contact” employed by W3C. Working groups can have dozens or hundreds of participants, all representing W3C members, though not all of them take an active part in the discussions and work. Members can also invite experts to help them in their work. For example, the SVG group is made up of 41 participants and 4 invited experts. Groups usually have a “hard core” of ten to twenty participants who do most of the work, with other participants acting as silent observers or intervening only occasionally.

Working groups can be abandoned if they lack participants, if the issue under study has become obsolete, if the group thinks it can’t do any more about the issue for the foreseeable future, or if the proposed specification has had no take-up by users (think of the XHTML 2.0 fiasco). Groups can be reconstituted when there is a need for a new version of a specification and enough members show an interest in the work. This was the case, for example, of the Math Working Group, responsible for defining the Mathematical Markup Language (MathML). The group was eliminated in 2004, reassembled in 2006 to develop version 3 of the language, then disbanded this year after its recommendation was adopted as an ISO standard.

The main work tool of the working groups is a mailing list, complemented by weekly telephone or video conferences, and sometimes by in-person meetings, though these are rare, due to the difficulty of gathering participants from the four corners of the world. Most of the work of working groups is public, and their email messages, working documents, meeting minutes and other documents are available to the general public. This means that the entire Web community can follow their work, react to decisions made and express views to the working groups.

The Web Standardization Process

The ultimate goal of any working group is to publish a Web standard specification, officially referred to as a W3C Recommendation. The guiding principle of working groups is to seek to achieve recommendations on a consensual basis. When no consensus can be reached, chairpersons can call a vote and, as a last resort, the Director of W3C, Sir Tim Berners Lee, has the final decision-making power. In this case, the role of the chairpersons is to ensure that all viewpoints and legitimate objections coming from members of the group, from other groups and from the general public are all taken into consideration. Consensus is considered to have been reached when no member of the group actively opposes a decision or presents factual arguments against it. Silence means consent, and quorum is only required if specifically stated in the group’s charter. This said, the W3C recommends that steps be taken to avoid any decisions based on “widespread apathy” rather than on explicit support.

When a working group’s first recommendation is roughed-out, it is released as a Working Draft, at which point members of the W3C, other organizations, and the general public can review the draft recommendation and make comments and suggestions. Parts of the document can have failed to achieve consensus within the working group. An updated Working Draft is released every time significant changes that could benefit from a public examination are brought to a recommendation.

After several versions of the Working Draft, when the working group believes that the recommendation is final and consensual, the specification is published as a Candidate Recommendation, then as a Proposed Recommendation. At these stages, the quality of the specification must be approved by the Director and the W3C Advisory Committee. It must also be shown that the specification is fully implementable and that it has been examined by all Web community stakeholders. Candidate Recommendations that are subject to requests for substantive change are demoted to Working Draft status; Proposed Recommendations that are generally accepted become a new Web standard as a full-fledged W3C Recommendation. Mazel Tov!

A Slow, Cumbersome Process

On paper, the process can look like a slow, steady process placidly flowing to that sea of felicity called the W3C Recommendation. In fact, the process is much more toilsome.

Specifications like HTML and CSS, which involve a huge number of stakeholders, can lead to passionate debates which often spill outside of the W3C. And even within Working Groups, power struggles arise between members who are direct competitors on the marketplace and who vie for certain features to serve their diverging strategic interests. Also, large technology companies (such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, IBM, etc.) can push for speed (“time to market”) over quality. And then there is the human factor, such as ego trips… Some of the arguments can reach epic proportions. Daniel Glazman, who chaired the CSS Working Group from 2008 to 2016, has likened the W3C standardization process to “bloodshed in plush surroundings”.

Further, the process of demonstrating implementability and interoperability always takes a huge amount of time. Not to mention that some groups are hampered by a lack of people with the expertise and availability to further their work.

The upshot is that W3C Recommendations are the result of a years-long, wearisome process. But when they do emerge, they are works of art, their every word having been assessed, weighed, examined and cross-examined. Recommendations follow a precise form and style that make them models of precision and clarity, with no room for either interpretation or misinterpretation. W3C recommendations are a guarantee of an open, accessible and interoperable Web.