Taming the Wild, Wild Web

On the sixth of August 1991 one man changed the world. His name was Tim Berners-Lee and all he did was plug a cord into the back of his computer. This man is the inventor of the World Wide Web and is the reason you almost certainly have the internet in your home.

Almost two decades have passed since that day and the world has become a very different place because of it. Thanks to this man it is now possible to order a cheeseburger on your computer or find out what is happening in the world the moment it happens, it has driven down prices as internet stores have much lower running costs and has connected the world in a way most would have never thought possible.

I personally discovered the internet in the mid 90’s, back then the web was a simpler place to create for and I quickly found myself hooked on creating websites, I watched people make and lose millions in a very short space of time and I realised the potential impact this amazing creation could have on my life and in 1998 I set myself on a new career path.

In 2001, I witnessed the first real failure of the web when the ‘dot-com’ bubble burst. The problem was the internet was in a state of turmoil, there were children who were making insane amounts of money from doing things as simple as posting football results onto a webpage, companies with no real business model suddenly finding their pockets overflowing with money. The problem was, the internet was too easy and there was no standard or formula to creating pages on the internet.

Sadly only venture capitalists learned a real lesson from this failure, the web continued to grow, ignoring standards, creating vast amounts of repeated and unverifiable data whilst at the same time managing to alienate itself from a fair proportion of the population. The investors ran away screaming in fear.

Take a look at the web as it stands today, it is full of sites which simply copy content from other people with no regard for copywrite law, there is pornography at every turn and there are people offering web services for free and others offering the same service for tens of thousands of pounds.

The larger and more indiscriminate the audience, the greater the need to safeguard and purify standards of quality and taste” – Moses Hadas

The problem with the internet is that although it has been around for a while, it has not really matured, in the grand scheme of things it is still very young and its decadence and lack of concern for the rules is a direct result of its age.

The best way I can explain it is to compare the Internet to the World and the Web to a country within it. At present this country has developed to the stage of the American Wild West, all the elements are there for something truly great to emerge but at the moment everyone is too concerned with their own thing for it to happen.

Tim Berners-Lee has tried his hardest to be the governor of this country by creating the World Wide Web Consortium, a non-profit body committed to creating a standardised web which is accessible to all, this is the only possible future for the web as it cannot progress further than its current incarnation without a sense of order.

The World Wide Web Consortium – or w3c, as it is more commonly known – is taking a great step in bringing the web to order, however for this to truly work there are ‘outlaws’ who need to be rounded up. The governor can only create the laws; it is still up to the sheriff’s to enforce them.

The sheriff’s of the web are the Internet Browsers who help the laws to be enforced, just like the real Wild West we have good sheriffs and we have the bad ones. The good guys are Mozilla Firefox, Opera and Google’s Chrome browser. The Bad guys are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer variants.

The problem with the web today is that the major browsers (Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8, Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and Opera) all have a different idea of what ‘Standard’ actually means. This has improved greatly over the last few years as now Firefox, Safari and Chrome all display websites in more-or-less the same way, even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 is a lot better than previous versions although still lacking in many ways.

If everyone who uses the internet suddenly started using one of the better browsers such as Firefox or Opera the problem would vanish overnight.

Obviously Microsoft has been a force for good in the development of the Internet and it is not my intention to throw mud in their eye, they did great things and should be proud of their contribution. They did however, create one very big problem, they took advantage of the general lack of technical knowledge and pre-installed Internet Explorer on peoples computers.

If I were to ask you which Internet Browser you used, most of you would say Internet Explorer for the simple reason that you didn’t know there were better options. The biggest problem with using Internet Explorer is that it does not automatically update itself to the latest version, which means if you are using Internet Explorer 6 (a very old browser which does not truly understand the modern internet) then without physically going to Microsoft’s website and downloading the new version, you’ll be stuck with it.

This is where web designers come into the picture, there are two kinds of web designers, there are the ‘The Deputies’ who enforce the web standards (laws) at every turn and try to make the web a better place for all and there are the ‘Cowboys’ who run their sites with reckless abandon, caring little about their customers or the longevity of their sites and are happy to line their pockets with the money paid to them for doing a hap-hazard job. They either don’t know that they should make sure their websites work in all browsers or they simply don’t care.

It is an unfortunate fact that most of the people who design websites today are cowboys. Not all of them are ‘bad’, most of them simply started building websites as a hobby and never knew that there were standards to be followed, it may sound harsh but this is not really a valid excuse, web standards are in place for the good of everyone and those who create websites which do not conform to them are preventing the growth of the internet and even excluding people from being able to view their websites.

Even more concerning is that many web designers are unaware that commercial websites are bound by a set of actual laws which demand that they are accessible to people who suffer from visual impairments. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) was created to make the world a little easier on those with disabilities, in 1999 the act was modified to include websites, more recently in 2005 the act was modified again to include all commercial and public information websites. This law now means that if your website is not accessible to those who suffer from visual impairments, it is possible for your company to be sued.

It is imperative that the World Wide Web moves on and learns that not everyone is a perfectly-abled Internet Explorer user; these standards need to be enforced at a more local level. The only way for this to happen effectively is to educate the end user that a decent quality website is much more than a pretty interface.

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Alex Ward
Freelance UI Developer at
Freelance User Interface Developer, Aspiring novelist and ill-informed political writer from Sevenoaks, UK.

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