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Looking into the future

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 11, 2002
(Issue 2002, Web Animation)

If you want to know what the World Wide Web will look, sound (and, who knows, smell) like in three to five years, there's no better place to look than the World Wide Web Consortium.

Not much younger than the Web itself, the W3C just turned seven years old in October – and with computer years being equivalent to dog years, the W3C is now all grown up.

What is the W3C? It is one of the many standards-setting organizations that dot the engineering world. If you've ever viewed a .jpg image (most of the pictures online are in .jpg format), then you know about the work of the Joint Photographic Experts Group. Other standards groups whose work you are likely familiar with include the Moving Pictures Experts Group (the folks that develop and maintain the mpeg and MP3 audio and video compression standards) or the American National Standards Institute (the folks who derived the ANSI plain-text standard that is slowly supplanting ANSI's own older, more limited ASCII text format in word processors). Engineers, of course, are all familiar with the I Triple E (IEEE) – the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. (And if you really must know, ASCII stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange.)

All of these groups are voluntary, with no authority to enforce compliance. Instead, they work on the principles of community and consensus. The leading businesses of each relevant industry are invited and encouraged to participate – if these companies adopt the new standards, everyone else is more likely to come around.

The benefit to you and I, of course, is that if there are recognized, accepted standards, then our different high-tech equipment is more likely to be interoperable and to communicate with each other reliably and efficiently.

When it comes to the Web, several of these groups help determine future standards. The MPEG group will continue its role in improving online multimedia content (despite Microsoft's thuggish attempts to corral all multimedia Web content into its Windows Media File format). IEEE and ANSI will continue to provide standards guidance for much of the infrastructure of the Internet – the routers and switchers that you and I mostly don't care about, except when they don't work and we can't get online.

But for how the Web looks and feels, the W3C is the lead organization – and by periodically browsing their site and seeing what projects are in progress, it's possible to get a fairly good feel for where the Web is heading.

The biggest proposed change is also one of the oldest – adoption of XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. Rather than an extension of the HTML that now serves as the language all Web sites are built with, XML is a new beast. It still uses tags, and some of them will seem familiar to those who know HTML, but XML is designed to let documents be sorted much more efficiently by search engines.

From an appearance standpoint, SVG – Scalable Vector Graphics – is more interesting. This would allow web page designers to use graphical effects like a gradient or a screen within a web page itself. Currently, to get these fancy effects, you have to create a graphic file (a .gif, .jpg or .png) and then link to it in your page. If SVG is every widely adopted, you'll be able to set up what's referred to as a paint server, and use a tag to call the effect you want.

More immediately, the already-adopted Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) continue to have new capabilities proposed. If you use Netscape 6, Opera 6 or IE 6, you've likely already seen how much neater and cleaner CSS can make web sites appear. Under plain HTML, you can only assign relative sizes to text – and your ability to place text in a specific place on a page you're designing is very limited. CSS has already freed web designers to manipulate text much more effectively than with HTML, and the proposals now on the boards at W3C will offer similar control over other elements, as well as further refining text handling.

Of course, all the standards folks can do is create standards – and then sit back with the rest of us and see what the creative folks who actually create web sites can come up with. The JPEG outfit likely never foresaw what their tools would lead to in digital photography.

How likely is it that we'll see these proposals develop? Well, the W3C is one of the few places where you'll find both Microsoft and Sun gathered, along with 500 other companies including such heavyweights as Apple, AOL/Time-Warner and Adobe. If they buy into these proposals (and one never knows just how deeply Microsoft is committed to anything besides Microsoft) any and all could be reality in a few years.