A City Upon A Hill; Blue Helmets of Cyberspace

Rohit Khare (khare@w3.org)
Fri, 18 Apr 1997 19:37:20 -0400 (EDT)

[I was particularly proud of these two contributions to today's W3C Newsletter]

A City Upon A Hill

by Rohit Khare

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

-- New Testament of St. Matthew

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

-- Hilaire Belloc 1870-1953

There's a passionate thread in American history known as the doctrine
of exceptionalism: that in rising afresh on the shores of a virgin
land, America developed a society unlike any other: inherently fairer,
more prosperous, and somehow destined to lead the world. The shining
beacon was lit by the Pilgrims themselves, whose leader planted the
seeds of the American ideal not far from Cambridge with the
proclamation "we shall build here a city upon a hill for all to look
up to".

To put it mildly, American exceptionalism is a somewhat disreputable
school of historiography. But, it is an inspirational tale. It sheds a
little light on the cultural crusade which is America. Today, I cite
this image to highlight how I feel about the World Wide Web

Amidst the chaos and carnage of technology battles, the World Wide Web
is a certain sort of earthly paradise, a sunny island of relative
tranquility. The Web has evolved at a breakneck pace because of the
standards and brotherly love of the Web Community. We are doing things
with computers today that no one dared imagine in a universe of
successive releases of proprietary products. Who among us would have
the absurd ambition to write a meta-OS for every computational device
in the world?! But now we are set on that course...

For today, it is W3C which leads the way forward. Not by divine right,
not even "because we have Tim Berners-Lee and they do not". We lead by
dint of hard work, fairness, shared community, and a vision that the
Web can remain a level playing field. To be an example to the world --
that is cause for humility, not pridefulness. Let us put our heads
down, together, and set to work!

The Blue Helmets of Cyberspace

_Jesse Berst's _AnchorDesk news service_ recently ran two articles
crying out that the feud between Netscape and Microsoft threatened to
split the Web and the Internet. He has since organized _a petition
drive_ to persuade these manufacturers and others to abide by 'net

In my visits to Microsoft and Netscape, I've come to believe both
companies genuinely want to adhere to public standards. Yet both
companies are also fiercely competitive. In their zeal, they sometimes
step over the line.


The Good News. Despite the current crisis, there is some good
news. Both Microsoft and Netscape are fully involved with the Internet
Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Worldwide Web Consortium
(W3C). Both companies meet regularly with the standards groups and
with each other to hash out conflicts and reach compromises. In
addition, the standards committees have been streamlining the process
so proposals can be ratified more quickly.

I believe there may be ways to (1) accelerate the work of the
standards bodies and (2) create a logo program so consumers can be
sure they are buying a compatible product. I'm researching these
possibilities now and I'll be back soon to report what I find.

In between those two events, we offered up W3C's perspective on these issues:

Jesse --

You certainly grabbed our attention with two of your recent Berst Alerts--

1. _Microsoft, Netscape Feud Puts HTML's Future at Risk_
2. _Netscape Push Announcement Puts Internet in Even Greater Danger_

We appreciated your approach as readers when you alerted the public to
the state of Java standardization, and we appreciate your efforts to
highlight the state of Web standards today. On the other hand, your
coverage seems to position the froth and margins of industrial
competition as vital threats to the commonweal. In fact, we believe
W3C is doing an excellent job of mediating today's technical
differences while leading the evolution towards a richer World Wide

We'll cover some of the specific situations you allude to below, but
here's the take-home lesson we're talking about:

1. W3C does have the key players around the negotiating table
2. W3C is moving at record speed
3. W3C is coordinating many, many aspects of web evolution according
to a common vision.

A. About W3C

The W3C has been an active voice in industry technology debates for a
little over two years now. Today, we represent over one hundred and
seventy developers, research organizations, government agencies, and
users. We have a technical staff of three dozen folks around the world
working in three Domains on thirty Activity Areas. We are not a:

1. Standards body, because we do not make legally binding decisions
2. Research Think-tank, because we work on the here-and-now
3. Trade Organization, because we represent the public trust

We operate in many different ways: by developing consensus among
current implementors, building and deploying experimental technology
on our own, and by initiating multilaterial implemenation
projects. We're not Web cops rapping people on knuckles and holding
them back -- we're more like the Blue Helmets of the UN keeping the
peace and striving for ever-greater harmony and tackling ever-larger

B. About '[dD]ynamic HTML'

In some areas, such as HTML, the first step is to stabilize the
patient. HTML 3.2, our first Recommendation in this arena, was
released last year to capture the baseline status of the HTML debate
as of January 1996. That does not mean we are a year behind -- we have
been making rapid, separate progress on many other components of the
next generation of HTML, codenamed Cougar. This includes: an OBJECT
embedding standard, FORMs revisions, accessibility features, scripting
integration, and much more. Future work includes a new Math markup
model, interactions with XML, Web Collections, Style sheets, ... All
work that you suggested "should have been finished last year". Well,
it's not that simple. Remember, the SPA's budget is an order of
magnitude larger than W3C, and all it does is sue users of pirated

The key is building trust around the table. Our Working Groups for
HTML, Style Sheets, Document Object Model, and others, represent the
leaders across the industry (far more than just the 'big two'). We
have demonstrated a lot of concrete cooperations coming out from these
quiet peacemaking efforts. The CSS Positioning draft, for example, is
coauthored by Microsoft and Netscape representatives. Many, many
aspects of CSS have been developed through implementation experience,
so quite rightly many vendors (SoftQuad, Grif S.A., and more) have
shipped CSS-based products before our CSS specs.

In the current marketing tussle over '[dD]ynamic HTML', a lot of
territory is being cloaked under the fog of war. As you explained in
your piece, this is not any single technology: it is a bundle of
approaches to animating HTML, formatting, and browsers. So one cannot
speak of an entire "incompatible" approach, one has to look at the
constituent technologies. Both sides support HTML3.2, CSS, and so
on. Netscape has experiments with JavaScript Style Sheets, Microsoft
has theirs. Some parts differ naturally -- we are only beginning the
requirements analysis phase of our new DOM (Document Object Model)
Working Group.

It is never a matter of "how long the W3C took to endorse the
proposal" -- we don't make standards, and we don't endorse. We are an
active partner in leading the evolution of the Web, which is why we
have a staff of the world's best (sometimes only!) experts on Web
technology. These are hard problems, and need to be solved carefully
since we are designing the legacy systems of tomorrow, today.

"It's all the more frustrating since the two companies could solve the
problem in about a week. Just lock the technical teams in a room with
the mandate to compromise. But then, the Israelis and Palestinians
could end their strife any time, too." -- the technical work from all
sides -- and not just MS and NS -- belies these claims.

C. About Push Technology

The same dissection refutes the claim that incompatible push
technology threatens the entire Internet. (Of course, push itself
might aggravate existing bandwidth challenges, but W3C is addressing
that in a concerted way, too). Push technology has many parts -- the
TV guide, the content itself, the transport protocols. Many of the
parts are strongly in common: a web page is stil HTML + embedded bits
whether in PointCast or IE4 or Netcaster. We are sponsoring extensive
work into HTTP and HTTP caching to keep the protocols effective in
these scenarios. And if there's competitive debate on 'channel
listing', all the better -- we have a process in place for Members to
raise these concerns such as the Submission process Microsoft has used
to offer its CDF for review. And even then, the goal for W3C, and the
Web, may not be to define any particular channel format. After all,
their CDF proposal leverages XML, a superset of markup languages which
could potentially render many format-compatibility questions
moot. We're after big game here:

7 W3C works on hooks for payment systems, not payment protocols
7 W3C works on hooks for applets, not APIs
7 W3C works on hooks for fonts, not font package formats
7 ...

D. Moving Forward

We've been reading the reader comments, and it's clear you've hit a
nerve by insisting on protecting our investment in Web technology
through open standards. We're thrilled whenever anyone stands behind
that vision and attracts followers (== users who buy products). We're
all waiting to hear about your next moves...

Please feel free to contact us at your convenience, through email or
on the phone, at 617 253 8036 (Sally) or 617 253 5884 (Rohit). We hope
that you do make progress on your call for a petition to support
common Web standards this Friday -- by supporting W3C!...