A Short History of WaSP and Why Web Standards Matter
In August of 2013, Aaron Gustafson posted to the WaSP blog. He had a bittersweet message for a community that he had helped lead:
Thanks to the hard work of countless WaSP members and supporters (like you), Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the web as an open, accessible, and universal community is largely the reality. While there is still work to be done, the sting of the WaSP is no longer necessary. And so it is time for us to close down The Web Standards Project.
If there’s just the slightest hint of wistful regret in Gustafson’s message, it’s because the Web Standards Project changed everything that had become the norm on the web during its 15+ years of service. Through dedication and developer advocacy, they hoisted the web up from a nest of browser incompatibility and meaningless markup to the standardized and feature-rich application platform most of us know today.
I previously covered what it took to bring CSS to the World Wide Web. This is the other side of that story. It was only through the efforts of many volunteers working tirelessly behind the scenes that CSS ever had a chance to become what it is today. They are the reason we have web standards at all.
Introducing Web Standards
Web standards weren’t even a thing in 1998. There were HTML and CSS specifications and drafts of recommendations that were managed by the W3C, but they had spotty and uneven browser support which made them little more than words on a page. At the time, web designers stood at the precipice of what would soon be known as the Browser Wars, where Netscape and Microsoft raced to implement exclusive features and add-ons in an escalating fight for market share. Rather than stick to any official specification, these browsers forced designers to support either Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer. And designers were definitely not happy about it.
Supporting both browsers and their competing feature implementations was possible, but it was also difficult and unreliable, like building a house on sand. To help each other along, many developers began joining mailing lists to swap tips and hacks for dealing with sites that needed to look good no matter where it was rendered.
From these mailing lists, a group began to form around an entirely new idea. The problem, this new group realized, wasn’t with the code, but with the browsers that refused to adhere to the codified, open specifications passed down by the W3C. Browsers touted new presentational HTML elements like the
<blink> tag, but they were proprietary and provided no layout options. What the web needed was browsers that could follow the standards of the web.
The group decided they needed to step up and push browsers in the right direction. They called themselves the Web Standards Project. And, since the process would require a bit of a sting, they went by WaSP for short.
Launching the Web Standards Project
In August of 1998, WaSP announced their mission to the public on a brand new website: to “support these core standards and encourage browser makers to do the same, thereby ensuring simple, affordable access to Web technologies for all.” Within a few hours, 450 people joined WaSP. In a few months, that number would jump to thousands.
WaSP took what was basically a two-pronged approach. The first was in public, tapping into the groundswell of developer support they had gathered to lobby for better standards support in browsers. Using grassroots tactics and targeted outreach, WaSP would often send its members on “missions” such as sending emails to browsers explaining in great detail their troubles working with a lack of consistent web standards support.
They also published scathing reports that put browsers on blast, highlighting all the ways that Netscape or Internet Explorer failed to add necessary support, even go so far to encourage users to use alternative browsers. It was these reports where the project truly lived up to its acronym. One needs to look no further then a quote from WaSP’s savage takedown of Internet Explorer as an example of its ability to sting:
Quit before the job’s done, and the flamethrower’s the only answer. Because that’s our job. We speak for thousands of Web developers, and through them, millions of Web users.
The second prong of WaSP’s approach included privately reaching out to passionate developers on browser teams. The problem, for big companies like Netscape and Microsoft, wasn’t that engineers were against web standards. Quite the contrary, actually. Many browser engineers believed deeply in WaSP’s mission but were resisted by perceived business interests and red-tape bureaucracy time and time again. As a result, WaSP would often work with browser developers to find the best path forward and advocate on their behalf to the higher-ups when necessary.
Holding it All Together
To help WaSP navigate its way through its missions, reports, and outreach, a Steering Committee was formed. This committee helped set the project’s goals and reached out to the community to gather support. They were the heralds of a better day soon to come, and more than a few influential members would pass through their ranks before the project was over, including: Rachel Cox, Tim Bray, Steve Champeon, Glenn Davis, Glenda Sims, Todd Fahrner, Molly Holzschalg and Aaron Gustafson, among many, many others.
At the top of it all was a project lead who set the tone for the group and gave developers a unified voice. The position was initially held by George Olsen, one of the founders of the project, but was soon picked up by another founding member: Jeffrey Zeldman.
A network of loosely connected satellite groups orbiting around the Steering Committee helped developers and browsers alike understand the importance of web standards. There was, for instance, an Accessibility group that bridged the W3C with browser makers to ensure the web was open and accessible to everyone. Then there was the CSS Samurai, who published reports about CSS support (or, more commonly, lack thereof) in different browsers. They were the ones that devised the Box Acid test and offered guidance to browsers as they worked to expand CSS support. Todd Fahrner, who helped save CSS with doctype switching, counted himself among the CSS Samurai.
Making an Impact
WaSP was huge and growing all the time. Its members were passionate and, little by little, clusters of the community came together to enact change. And that is exactly what happened.
The changes felt kind of small at first but soon they bordered on massive. When Netscape was kicking around the idea of a new rendering engine named Gecko that would include much better standards support across the board, their initial timeline would have taken months to release. But the WaSP swarmed, emailing and reaching out to Netscape to put pressure on them to release Gecko sooner. It worked and, by the next release, Gecko (and better web standards) shipped.
Tantek Çelik was another member of WaSP. The community inspired him to take a stand on web standards at his day job as lead developer of Internet Explorer for Mac. It was through the encouragement and support of WaSP that he and his team released version 5 with full CSS Level 1 support.
In August of 2001, after years of public reports and private outreach and developer advocacy, the WaSP sting provoked seismic change in Internet Explorer as version 6 released with CSS Level 1 support and the latest HTML features. The upgrades were due in no small part to the work at the Web Standards Project and their work with dedicated members of the browser team. It appeared that standards were beginning to actually win out. The WaSP’s mission may have even been over.
But instead of calling it quits, they shifted tactics a bit.
Teaching Standards to a New Generation
In the early 2000’s, WaSP would radically change its approach to education and developer outreach.
WaSP was going to bring the web up to speed, even if they had to do it one person at a time. Perhaps no one articulated this sentiment better than Molly Holzschalg when she wrote “Raise Your Standards” in February 2002. In the article, she broke down what web standards are and what they meant for developers and designers. She celebrated the work that had been done by browsers and the community working to make web standards a thing in the first place.
But, she argued, the web was far from done. It was now time for developers to step up to the plate and assume the responsibility for standards themselves by coding it into all of their sites. She wrote:
The Consortium is fraught with its own internal issues, and its actions—while almost always in the best interests of professional Web authors—are occasionally politicized.
Therefore, as Web authors, we’re personally responsible for making implementation decisions within the framework of a site’s markup needs. It’s our job to administer recommendations to the best of our abilities.
This, however, would not be easy. It would once again require the combined efforts of WaSP members to pull together and teach the web a new way to code. Some began publishing tutorials to their personal blogs or on A List Apart. Others created a standards-based online curriculum for web developers who were new to the field. A few members even formed brand-new task forces to work with popular software tools, like Adobe Dreamweaver, and ensure that standards were supported there as well.
The redesigns of ESPN and Wired, which stood as a testament and example for standards-based designs for years to come, were undertaken in part because members of those teams were inspired by the work that WaSP was doing. They would not have been able to take those crucial first steps if not for the examples and tutorials made freely available to them by gracious WaSP members.
That is why web standards is basically second nature to many web developers today. It’s also why we have such a free spirit of creative exchange in our industry. It all started when WaSP decided to share the correct way of doing things right out in the open.
Looking Past Web Standards
It was this openness that carried WaSP into the late 2010’s. When Holzschlag took over as lead, she advocated for transparency and collaboration between browser makers and the web community. The WaSP, Holzschlag realized, was no longer necessary and could be done from within. For example, she made inroads at Microsoft to help make web standards a top priority on their browser team.
With each subsequent release, browsers began to catch up to the latest standards from the W3C. Browsers like Opera and Firefox actually competed on supporting the latest standards. Google Chrome used web standards as a selling point when it was initially released around the same time. The decade-and-a-half of work by WaSP was paying off. Browser makers were listening to the W3C and the web community, even going so far as to experiment with new standards before they were officially published for recommendation.
In 2013, WaSP posted its farewell announcement and closed up shop for good. It was a difficult decision for those who had fought long and hard for a better, more accessible and more open web, but it was necessary. There are still a number of battlegrounds for the open web but, thanks to the efforts of WaSP, the one for web standards has been won.
Enjoy learning about web history? Jay Hoffmann has a weekly newsletter called The History of the Web you can sign up for here.
A Short History of WaSP and Why Web Standards Matter is a post from CSS-Tricks