Emerging Web Standards: Keeping Up to Stay Ahead

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Twenty years ago when the web was young, the topic of standards was mainly the purview of computer scientists, engineers, and enterprise technologists. But these days, emerging web standards have become everyone's business.

Part of the reason is that the sheer number of standards with which a web entity must comply has mushroomed in the past decade. Mark Rogers, CEO of PowerMapper Software, a U.K.-based software company specializing in website analysis tools, compares the current state of standards to planning a night out at a pub. "In the old days, it was two people trying to figure out when to meet. Now it's much more complicated, because there are a hundred people who have to agree when to meet, and it has to work for every single one of them," Rogers says.

Jeff Whatcott, SVP of marketing at Brightcove, an online video platform, agrees that the current dynamic environment for web standards is unique. "I've never seen it like this," he says. "It's like the browser wars all over again."

For content companies, choosing which emerging standards to embrace requires staying up-to-date with multiple standards bodies, customer environments, commercial implications, federal regulations, and timing challenges. Leveraging standards means getting comfortable with the trade-offs between what's possible now and what's on the horizon.

Standard Issue
Let's start with some basics on what web standards are and why they're worth knowing about-regardless of your technical interest or acumen. According to a manifesto from MACCAWS (Making a Commercial Case for Web Standards), a group of developers active in the early part of the decade helping their peers better communicate the benefits of web standards to nontechnical managers, "Web standards make the Web a place where files can be read by anyone, regardless of what they are using to access the Internet." Such standards seek to make sure that content authors and content users on the web can communicate with one another, regardless of the device upon which the webpage is being experienced.

The benefits of adherence to web standards include easier development and maintenance, which translates into cost savings. Margie Hlava is president, chairman, and founder of Access Innovations, Inc. and is member of the board of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). She says, "Developing along standards saves money, because you don't have to reinvent the wheel each time."

Of course, few companies develop systems to work in a vacuum; the likelihood that your web-based program will have to play nicely with other applications and developers in the cloud, in an outsourcing arrangement, with customers, or with contractors, is high. Utilizing standards means that future maintenance and development will require less intensive care than a nonstandard program.

Another key benefit is improved accessibility. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes access to information and communications technologies, including the web, as a basic human right. It's regulated by law in many countries including the U.S. and U.K., so standards compliance can be considered a risk mitigation strategy.

But ensuring that people with disabilities can access your web content isn't just a defensive move; it's good business. A blind online shopper, a retiree with aging-related issues managing a portfolio of investments, or a person with repetitive stress injuries preventing him or her from using a standard keyboard all fall into the category of users who need flexible access to the web. That same flexibility-whether made through transcripts of audio files, on-screen text alternatives to images, or scrolling control-can make your site easier to navigate for any customer.

Adherence to web standards also improves SEO. Properly structured HTML is easier for search engines to process. "Search engines have difficulty with broken sites," points out Rogers. "If your page is compliant, you may still not rank at the top. But at least you can be assured that the search engine found everything on the page."

Standards also enable device interoperability. At a time when smartphone and tablet computing is undergoing meteoric growth, the ability to separate content from structure gives assurance to publishers that their content will display in any device in which the user experiences it. Rogers says, "It's a way to future-proof your work. I was just looking at a webpage from the mid 1990s on my iPhone, and because it was HTML compliant it displayed just fine."

Whatcott says, "Multidevice is huge for us right now. Clients want to be sure that their videos will work anyplace they're viewed." With research firm iSuppli releasing a report in June 2010 projecting that global smartphone business will more than double over the next 4 years, with shipments rising to 506 million units in 2014, demand for multidevice viewing is only going to get bigger.

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