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Fragmented Technology Landscape

Dec 2nd, 2010 by Max Tokman

Every now and again, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international organization that sets web technology standards, releases a set of guidelines that should, in theory, bring order to the galaxy and give developers and designers alike an ability to build robust web applications without worrying about minutiae such as delivery platform and browser differences. These initiatives never fully come to fruition and development for the web remains disjointed.

There's a sequence of interlinking factors precluding implementation of standards. It starts with the majority of top content on the web being free, with users paying only monthly service fees to their ISP to access shopping, news and free broadband content. Free content breeds proliferation of hardware and software intermediaries, i.e. computer and browser makers, each vying for a market share by offering a slightly different way of accessing the same information. While all of the hardware and software makers involved in delivery of web-based technology adhere to some lowest common denominator of standards, that’s as far as it goes. Every time you hear about company X “now supporting…”, that’s the sound of the web technology landscape becoming further fragmented.

This fragmentation impacts those of us involved in designing and building for the web by forcing us to choose between two critical factors: doing cutting edge work but reaching a limited target group versus doing more basic work to reach the widest possible audience.  Project requirements never go to either extreme and the result has been an increased amount of production hours required to produce pixel-tight front-end to match the creative.

A page that used to take three hours to make now takes eight, with validation in increased number of browsers and ever-increasing number of legacy browsers. This has a direct impact on budgets and timelines. Framework development (Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal) offers a measure of respite, but comes with caveats; the design has to fit within the framework, otherwise you’ll spend at least as much time modifying it as you would coding from scratch. Server-side technologies such as .NET and PHP are not factors in the increased browser compatibility efforts - rather, the time is spent tweaking HTML, CSS and JavaScript to address all the little browser differences.

Will there ever be a unified set of standards for everyone in the industry to follow, the PANTONE for the web? Possibly. When content is no longer free and ISPs and browser makers have to purchase content before delivering it to your holographic screen, there’ll be strong incentive for all content and delivery methods and platforms to follow standards. This will not come any time soon, as any attempt to solidify the technology marketplace will run into current anti-monopoly legislation. For now, we pick our battles; we identify our target audience and build with that target audience in mind.

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