The W3C and Standards
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international standards organisation founded by Tim Berners-Lee and others in October 1994, following Lee’s departure from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The organisation is currently headed by Berners-Lee as director, and has a permanent team of multi-national researchers and engineers. W3C is today an industry consortium whose membership consists of well over four hundred individuals and organisations from around the world. Its role is to oversee the development of Web standards, and its stated aim is "to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential . . . by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web".
The W3C does this by developing interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools). The consortium is jointly administered by the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) in the USA, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) based in France, Keio University in Japan, and Beihang University in China. The main office is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and there are regional offices in strategic locations around the world that work with the Internet communities in their region to promote W3C technologies and standards in local languages, broaden the organisation's geographical base, and encourage international participation in W3C activities. The organisation is funded through research grants, individual donations of money and equipment, and various other sources of private and public funding.
W3C activities are organised around Working Groups that undertake technical development, Interest Groups that deal with more general issues, and Coordination Groups that facilitate communication between related groups. The technical activities undertaken by working groups are led by members of the W3C team. The size of each working group varies, but a group will typically consist of a member of the W3C team, representatives of member organisations, and invited experts. The working groups produce most of the W3C's deliverables, including technical reports, Web standards, open source software, and services (for example, validation services). The groups work closely with other standards bodies and the various technical communities. W3C has published well over a hundred standards, called W3C Recommendations, since it was founded 1n 1994. The primary goal of W3C is to ensure that fundamental Web technologies are compatible with each other (interoperable). Open standards and Web protocols are seen as essential if the Web is to continue to be a universally accessible medium.
Proposed new standards must undergo a four-stage maturation process before they become full W3C recommendations:
- Working draft (WD) - a document that W3C has published for review by the community, including W3C Members, technical organisations, and other stakeholders and interested parties. This is the first version of the standard to be made publicly available. Depending on the feedback generated by the review process, a working draft may undergo a number of changes before proceeding to the next level.
- Candidate recommendation (CR) - a document that is published once the group responsible for the standard are satisfied that it meets all of its objectives. The primary purpose of this stage is to seek the aid of browser vendors, web developers, and those engaged in the development of web authoring software, to ascertain whether the features embodied in the standard can be implemented in the manner described, or whether further changes need to be made to the standard.
- Proposed recommendation (PR) - details of the standard have been largely agreed upon, and the document is passed to the W3C advisory council for final approval. Further inputs to the process may take the form of feedback from the development community based on concrete implementations, but do not usually result in significant changes being made to the standard.
- W3C recommendation (REC) - by this point, the standard has undergone extensive review and testing and is endorsed by the W3C. This is intended to signal to browser vendors and web developers alike that their offerings should meet the minimum levels of conformance laid down for the standard if they wish to label them as being W3C standards compliant.
If further changes to a standard should prove necessary, the standard may be updated or extended through separately published errata or editor’s drafts. The issuance of a new version of the standard will only be considered if the number of amendments reaches a level that is deemed sufficient to warrant such an action.
W3C standards are developed with the intention of maximising the interoperability of web technologies by achieving an industry-wide consensus on how those technologies should be implemented. The W3C seeks to level the playing field for both web developers and end users by developing open, non-proprietary and patent-free standards that are free at the point of use in order to ensure that the World Wide Web remains accessible to all. Web pages and web applications are often described as being standards-compliant if they conform to the relevant technical standards, which of course includes the relevant W3C recommendations. Most of us are more than happy if our HTML and CSS code is given the green light by an online validation service. The W3C does not concern itself solely with technical standards, however.
The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has published a series of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) aimed at making web content more accessible. WCAG version 2.0, first published in 2008, became an ISO standard (ISO/IEC 40500:2012) in 2012. WCAG version 2.1 became a W3C Recommendation in 2018. The initiative is primarily concerned with ensuring that web content is accessible to people with disabilities, but is also designed to ensure that web content is, as far as possible, device independent. This means that a web page should be able to detect the type of display device on which it will be rendered, and adapt its format accordingly. In other words, a web page should be accessible to a user regardless of whether they are attempting to access it on a desktop computer with a high-speed Internet connection or on a low-end smartphone with limited bandwidth.