The hard road towards semantic purity

There were two articles on Web today that inspired a long story in me. One was about the implications of semantic Web design and the other was about Web accessibility and standards. For me, the tone of the articles was positive; they seemed to say that persistence pays. Anyway, here’s my story.

Back in 1997, after dabbling with designing my own Web pages off and on for over a year, I was hired by a friend to design Web document that were accessible to people with disabilities. Specifically, he wanted my help to redesign a corporate site to be a model of accessible design. I didn’t yet know how to design Web documents accessibly, but he gave me the chance to learn. This started a learning process that still hasn’t left me today.

Writing hypertext markup is easy, comparatively speaking. That’s why the Web expanded so fast. Writing hypertext markup properly is hard if you have to unlearn a lot of bad habits. This was where I was in late 1997. In the process of removing my bad habits, I read of a group of smart designers who were striving to design the Web properly. In early 1998, after reading about these smart designers, I discovered a group dedicated to the shocking idea that following markup standards might be a good idea. I learned about XML and Tim Berners-Lee’s ideal of semantic documents and Web data. I learned that accessible Web design and standards compliance were, and are, deeply linked. I learned of and came to accept a world view that was at odds with the realities of the day.

Let me give you more context. This was 1998 and Microsoft had just scattered the dirt on the fresh grave of Netscape. Navigator 4 had lost the technology race to Internet Explorer 4. Netscape lost the technology race in at least two key ways: support for both cascading style sheets and the new accessibility features of HTML 4. If I wanted to an expert in accessible Web design, I had to focus on and appreciate and condemn the ways in which Internet Explorer support or failed to support CSS and HTML 4’s accessibility features.

To quickly summarize the last 5 years, I had to wait for things to catch up. I was very happy when Internet Explorer 5 for the Macintosh came out. I was very happy when Internet Explorer 6 for Windows finally corrected many of the lingering bugs the persisted since Internet Explorer 4 for Windows. I was happy that Opera 3 and then all the later versions of Opera served as persistent though minor itch in the side of Microsoft’s Web development. I was happy the Mozilla project was launched; I expected big things from it. By the year 2001, when Mozilla 1 was released, we lonely idealists were vindicated for our support in the dark years.

So I am unafraid that Microsoft has halted further development of Internet Explorer for Macintosh. I am unafraid that Microsoft has halted further development on stand-alone versions of Internet Explorer for Windows. We have alternatives now. The fight for standards is nearly won. As long as I and growing numbers of other designers keep building stuff to follow the standards of XHTML and CSS 2, the browser makers and the assistive technology builders will have something to focus on and support.

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