Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Web Focus: A Standards-Based Culture for Web Site Development

Brian Kelly outlines strategies for choosing appropriate standards for building Web sites.

In Ariadne issue 33 the Web Focus column encouraged Web developers to "get serious about HTML standards" [1]. The article advocated use of XHTML and highlighted reasons why this was an important standard for Web developers.

XHTML is just one of the standards which has been developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C has also developed several standards for XML as well as standards in the area of hyperlinking, multimedia and graphics.

The W3C are not the only body which is responsible for the development of open standards of relevance to Web developers: the IETF [2], for example, is responsible for the development of underlying Internet standards, ECMA [3] for the client-side scripting language JavaScript (or ECMA script, as it is formally known) and ISO [4] in a range of other areas such as language codes, character encodings, etc.

However although an approach to Web development based on open standards may seem appealing, in practice there will be occasions when use of proprietary solutions may be needed (for example, there may be areas in which open standards are not available or are not sufficiently mature for deployment in a service environment).

An awareness that Web developers may be faced with a choice leads to the need for that choice to be an informed one. This article aims to advise Web developers on several factors to consider when choosing formats for use when developing Web sites.

What Are Open Standards?

The term "open standards" has been used without defining what this term means. It can mean:

Note that not all open standards bodies will comply with all of these features. The standards-making process within the W3C, for example, is initially restricted to organisations which are members of the W3C and a small number of invited experts.

Alternatives To Open Standards

There are a number of formats which are widely used by the Web community but are not open standards in the sense used above. The term "proprietary" is normally used to refer to formats which are owned by a company. However, to confuse matters, companies sometimes use the term "industry standard" or "de facto" standards to refer to proprietary formats.

In addition to the use of confusing terminology, some proprietary formats may be more open than others. For example, proprietary formats may have a community development process, which allows users of the format to have some level of input into developments of the format, or the specification may be published openly.

A Strategy For Choice

Ownership of format is not the only factor. There is also a need to consider issues such as cost, resource implications and the appropriateness of the format; and the need for a risk assessment of the dangers of adopting an inappropriate standard. You should remember that even choosing an open standard is not without its dangers - readers over the age of 35 involved in IT in the UK university sector may remember Coloured Book networking protocols (which were promoted as the path to the ISO-standard OSI (Open System Interconnection) networking protocols, but were eventually discarded in favour of Internet protocols).

Rather than mandating a particular approach, the alternative is to provide a multi-dimensional pattern of relevant factors and leave it to Web developers to choose the appropriate approach for their particular project.

The following factors need to be considered and the degree to which they apply to a project.

Ownership of Standard

Is the standard:

Openness of Proprietary Format

If the standard is proprietary is it a proprietary standard for which:

Availability of Viewers

Are viewers for the format:

Availability of Authoring Tools

Are authoring tools for the format:


Does the standard provide:

User Requirements

Does the standard:

Fitness for Purpose

Is the standard:

Resource Implications

Will use of the standard:


Is the format:


If it becomes necessary to migrate to an alternative format will it be:

Cultural Factors

As well as the various technical issues addressed above, there is also a need to consider the organisational culture of the developers. For example, is the organisation keen to make use of innovative developments or does it prefer to make use of mature solutions; is the use of open source software prevalent in the organisation; etc.


This article has sought to address some of the difficulties likely to be confronted when choosing standards for use in the development a Web site. You may find it useful to make use of the list of factors given above as part of an overall strategy for the development of a Web site. Either way, there is little doubt that time devoted to such strategy formulation pays dividends in the long run.


  1. Let's Get Serious About HTML Standards, Ariadne issue 33, Sept 2002
  2. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) http://www.ietf.org/
  3. ECMA http://www.ecma-international.org/
  4. ISO http://www.iso.ch/iso/en/ISOOnline.frontpage

Author Details

Picture of Brian Kelly Brian Kelly
UK Web Focus
University of Bath

Email: b.kelly@ukoln.ac.uk

Brian Kelly is UK Web Focus. He works for UKOLN, which is based at the University of Bath