Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why Web Standards?

I am currently in Vancouver attending the web directions north conference. So far it's been really good, and I have some great ideas for some blog posts on some cool CSS techniques I've learnt from Andy Clarke's workshop on CSS, but you'll have to wait as I want to play with some ideas for a while. For now I want to talk about something else.

I have asked John Allsopp (the man behind the company behind web directions) for a video interview tomorrow, and he's agreed. Amongst other things i want to ask him the question "As asp.net developers, why should we be worried about web standards?" (this question is mainly to let him evangelise about web standards), and i thought, maybe I should attempt to answer that question myself, so here goes.
If you are writing a public facing website (or web application as is most common for asp.net developers), then the truth of the matter is that you CANNOT assume a particular browser. Ie7 DOES NOT, & WILL NOT be the only browser that you have to consider. Firefox is an extremely popular browser & looks like maintaining (if not increasing) it's popularity, i even have it as my default browser, not to mention opera, safari, and others.
Further to this, you CAN NOT even assume windows xp or vista as your base operating system. there are many people who are still running windows98 (mainly for licensing reasons, but they still represent a market you may want to reach). Plus the hordes of people who still haven't had the Microsoft chip implanted into their neural system, and insist on running Linux, mac OSX, etc. Add to this the growing market of handheld devices such as PDA's and phones, all with their different browsers, and you have a truly overwhelming number of combinations and permutations that are possible.

Now lets throw into the mix something that I have seen very little support for in the ASP.Net community as a whole, and that is Accessibility. When most people think of accessibility, they think of screen readers, but that is just one end of the spectrum, people with impaired vision (my partner included) often simply want to increase the font size a little, which renders a lot of designs I've seen in the past quite bizarrely to say the least. Why should we worry about Accessibility? I hear you ask... forgetting the ethical concerns, and the fact that the web was originally designed to be accessible to ALL, the fact of the matter is that (at least in Australia) you can be SUED if you do not comply to accessibility standards, the Sydney Olympics was sued to the tune of $500,000 for this very reason.

A quick concession here is that Web Standards compliance does not always mean accessible, there are many things you can do and still remain standards compliant, but be completely inaccessible, the issues for accessibility are somewhat more ethereal, however, web standards is a fairly good starting point.
Given all this, as a developer, you still need to pick a browser support matrix, otherwise you will go insane attempting to test with ALL versions of ALL browsers that have ever been in existence, (I'm not sure if anyone still ever uses lynx, the good old text based unix web browser, but it is certainly and interesting exercise to open up your website in it and see what happens), but even once you have determined your browser support matrix, unless you have a very narrow focus group, this will include more than just IE7. Also even though you might not be directly considering older browsers, it doesn't hurt not to purposely break them just because you can.

Having decided on a browser support matrix, then you will quickly realise that the best way to not only get the best results in all your current browsers, but also to anticipate V.next of those browsers is to use to the best of your ability the currently agreed upon web standards.

For some reason this seems to many ASP.Net developers to be a real problem, this is partly because of some cultural issues with developers in the Microsoft space, and partly because of the way ASP.Net abstracts the developer from the final markup that is actually rendered to the browser (I want to deal with this at length in another post), but to be honest, there is really no excuse. There are very few effects that you would like to achieve that you cannot do through the use of standards compliant markup and css, and a little bit of fore thought. If you go the extra mile and approach it from a more ideological point of view where you attempt to separate the content from you presentation, you get the added benefit of making you website at least readable on all different types of browser, not to mention generally a lot closer to being accessible by assistive technologies (such as screen readers) the likes of which most of us will NEVER get the opportunity to test against.


Of course if you are working on an Intranet site for a company that runs an SOE that they will NEVER change (eg Windows XP with IE6), then feel free to write whatever browser specific functionality you need to to get the job done, and pray they never upgrade to IE7.


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