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What Are Standards?

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Molly Holzschlag

Standards are a set of specifications for a wide range of mechanical, technological, and everyday items from plastic baggies to toasters. Almost all electronic devices follow standards, which are used to ensure that the gasoline in your car adheres to certain specifications and even provide the guidelines for what type and quality wiring gets used in a house.

The goal of a standard is to provide a baseline specification for the product or service in question. This, in turn, provides numerous solutions for the manufacturers, developers, and consumers of products. Some of the issues with which standards are concerned include the following:

  • Safety

  • Consistency

  • Interoperability

  • Compatibility

  • Quality

  • Reliability

What's more, standards often operate quietly—behind-the-scenes from the consumer—who might see a standards sticker on a DVD player, but not necessarily know or care what it means. For the consumer, standards ideally are a seamless part of the process—the consumer is protected and his or her life is made easier as a result.

Other benefits of standards occur at the level of industry, business, and society at large because by standardizing products and services and making them interoperable, trade across nations is more efficient. Standards make things easier on the developers, too, because they provide a guideline of how things get done. This saves time and money, and also provides a level playing field. Competing manufacturers now have to find ways to innovate that don't interfere with the baseline expectation of a standard.

But how are standards defined? Typically, a consortium or organized body with interest in creating specifications comes together and works toward developing a standard that will provide the solutions and address the concerns mentioned above. These organizations are often made up of the industry leaders within that field, along with special-interest groups. Together, they put together guidelines in a very explicit process, drafting and redrafting specifications until they are published as a standard via that consortium.

A perfect example of this is found in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO is the world's largest developer of standards, and many of its standards are technical in nature. Some of the standards that Web designers and developers use come from the ISO.

Web Standards and the W3C

Of course, there are many other standards bodies governing various disciplines. The Web is influenced by several different standards organizations, depending upon the technologies in question. Undeniably the most significant group for Web standards is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The W3C governs a wide range of Web-related standards, including:

  • Accessibility

  • CSS

  • DOM (Document Object Model)

  • HTML, XHTML, and XML

  • PNG

  • RDF

  • SMIL

  • XSL and XSLT

To get a complete list of the Web standards that are covered by the W3C, simply visit http://www.w3.org/. All the standards and areas being worked on by the groups within the W3C are listed on the left side of the main page.

Understanding the Meaning of "Standards" for the Web

The W3C isn't the only group working with Web standards, however. The ECMA provides IT-industry standards including character sets, and has a standard scripting model called ECMAScript which is essentially a standardized version of JavaScript. OASIS is consortium with focus on e-business standards.

But the term standards can be a bit confusing in the context of Web technologies. Take the W3Cs specifications for HTML and XHTML. Are these standards to which designers and developers must conform? Not really. Unlike the ISO's standards, the W3C creates specifications that are authoritative but not legally binding.

The W3C writes its specifications primarily for three audiences:

  • Designers and developers

  • Browser developers

  • Web design and development software manufacturers

So, there's no governing body checking up on anyone to ensure compliance. As such, we've had a lot of difficulties over the years with browsers competing on a level that caused the exact problems that standards are meant to prevent. Ideally over time, browser and software developers for the Web will comply with the specifications, making it easier for Web designers and developers to comply with the specifications to get safe, reliable, interoperable, and consistent results.

When that happens, competition becomes feature-oriented in terms of the software, not framework-oriented in terms of proprietary languages and methodologies.

Because a Web site is a product and often a service, too, the onus currently ends up on the Web designer and developer to conform to standards. So although there's a gray area between what a specification offers and what is a true industry standard, the W3C must be considered the de-facto standards body governing the work we do with markup. The W3C and related groups supply the specifications, and if we follow those specifications, we'll more rapidly advance our desire to achieve interoperable, consistent Web sites.