Wednesday, March 6, 2013

WaSP's True Legacy: Compliance Testing

The Web Standards Project (WaSP) is closed after 15 years of improving the web.

Their biggest contribution (as they see it) was all the countless hours of outreach, working with vendors and web developers to evangelize the right way to build standards-compliant web sites. Their biggest contribution as I see it was the development of a presentation-layer compliance test (ACID & ACID3).

See, before WaSP's compliance test, browsers had no definitive compliance test for how well they implemented CSS and HTML visually. They could just claim that they supported standards, fudge or ignore the grey areas of the W3C RFCs and everything was "standardized". Except web devs back then had to have an enormous bag of tricks and work arounds to get anything close to a standard visual design implemented. The early web sucked visually. Print designers laughed at the pitiful layout controls and web devs struggled to get even the simplest forms aligned.

Then the WaSP ACID test came out and everyone could instantly see which browsers sucked and which didn't.

Browsers immediately started competing with each other to see who could get the most compliant score.

The ACID3 test up'ed the ante even further:

All of the sudden, the visual web became an entirely different experience for web devs.  Browsers actually supported most if not all of the features of CSS and actually following the W3C standards was no longer a penalty that you swore and grit your teeth through.

But almost none of this was outreach, correcting the "silly errant ways" of web devs.  It had everything to do with compliance tests.  How do I know?  Easy, look at OpenGL and DirectX.  In order to get promoted as a compliant video driver, you have to pass compliance tests that compare graphics on your video card with reference images.  If you don't generate exactly the same images, you fail.  Simple.  If you fail, you aren't allowed to claim to be a OpenGL standards-compliant video driver (or the same from the proprietary Windows Hardware Labs certification).  These certs are big money, because if you aren't certified, no one buys your product.

But browsers have been a different story.  There has been no presentation layer compliance testing in browser standards because the W3C has a very rigid view of what browsers are.  For them, a browser is merely an endpoint in a data stream.  The W3C cares very much about the data stream, which is why the majority of the technologies the W3C talks about are actually data standards that say nothing about how the browser is supposed to render the data it receives.  In fact, the W3C views this as a plus, because browser data should be displayable in a variety of formats (i.e. large text, screen readers, etc.).  In other words they've confused supporting multiple presentation formats with not specifying most of the presentation-layer behavior at all.

That's the real reason the web sucked before WaSP.  The W3C had no concept of presentation layer even though technologies like Postscript had already paved the way for true device-independent layouts that actually looked good!  Instead the W3C looked clunky.  It looked broken, even though the data behind it was excellent.  Even today, the W3C does an excellent job of providing data validation for CSS, HTML, and numerous other data formats it defines.

But WaSP was the first (and the only) group to actually define a reference visual compliance test for what layouts should look like if they followed all the standards.  This effort wasn't completely defined by the W3C -- there was some filling in of grey areas not specified by the standards -- but WaSP led the charge and also led the process of driving that compliance test to acceptance by the industry.

Now browsers could be publically shamed by not supporting the compliance tests and devs could see reference implementations of how the standards were supposed to work.  It was a win-win.

So, now I wonder, as WaSP shuts its doors, who will pick up this charge?  Will it be Ian Hickson (of Google) who worked on the ACID3 test?  Will it be an industry effort run by a non-profit like  Or will the ACID3 test simply age and lapse into obscurity, once again freeing browser makers from really paying close attention to the semantics of the presentation layer?

I hope someone picks up the torch, otherwise it will be a darker world with WaSP gone.