Tim Greenhalgh meets the Norwegian who redefined style on the world wide web, and Tony Durham sums up a year of successes and setbacks for the web's energetic standard setters
The web is a global medium and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) wants it to serve a diverse world where people do not all speak the same language, use the same hardware and software or have the same abilities, tastes and interests.
The W3C has worked to ensure that web technology supports the varied character sets and writing conventions of the world's languages. It has promoted guidelines for making the web accessible to people with disabilities. Most of the members are companies but two of its three main offices are on the neutral ground of universities (MIT in the United States and Keio in Japan) and the third in a national research laboratory (France's Inria). The consortium strives to keep the web open by ensuring that no aspect of its technology is controlled by one company. Powerful firms act friendly towards standards bodies, if only because they hope to see their technologies elevated to standards. Microsoft and Netscape are members, but have at times tried to race ahead of the W3C process by adding non-standard features to their web browsing software.
One of 1998's achievements for the consortium was the release of SMIL, a recommendation which gives web multimedia developers precise control over layout, timing and interactivity. But Microsoft chose not to put SMIL into its new browser Internet Explorer 5. It claims its own technology, HTML+Time, is superior. Microsoft has put HTML+Time into the W3C standards process but will probably be as surprised as anyone if it is adopted.
By contrast XML, originally developed at Sun Microsystems, has been an unqualified success for the W3C. XML was an instant hit with specialised communities of web users ill-served by basic HTML. Chemists wanted to represent molecular structures, business people wanted orders and invoices, librarians wanted electronic catalogue cards. With XML they can define standard ways of exchanging these specialised types of information. XML meets a widely-felt need, and there is no other technology competing for the same niche.
But according to Sun's Jon Bosak, the need for XML was as much political as technical. At a W3C seminar in London in December he said: "You had to have XML to keep the web open. That is one of the dark secrets of XML."
Without it, the web would have been ripe for takeover by a proprietary format controlled by a single company, the very thing the W3C is determined to avoid.