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Archive: September 2006

W3C Change: Full Independence

Apologies for the break in posting just as I was getting to the best part of the W3C Change series, but back-to-back trips to Seattle and Dallas came up before I could finish writing up my thoughts.  This one was, for all the simplicity of the content, the hardest one to write, because I kept revising it to try to be more clear about what I’m proposing and how it would be an improvement.  I could keep revising ’til the end of forever, so I’m just going to take what I have now and go with it.

My third recommendation is simply this: Transform the W3C from a member-funded organization to a financially independent entity.

In order to accomplish this, the W3C would need to embark on a major capital campaign, similar to the efforts mounted by major non-profit organizations and American private universities.  The campaign parameters that come to mind are a ten-year campaign whose goal is to build an endowment of $200 million.  From the interest on this endowment—which at a relatively modest 5% return would be $10 million annually—the W3C could fund its activities.

(Note: I do not have access to the budget of the W3C, but with approximately 70 staff members at an average total cost of $125,000 per year in salary, benefits, and travel expenses, the staffing cost would be $8.75 million.  If I am lowballing the budget, then obviously the capital campaign’s goal would have to be raised.  The general approach remains the same.)

As the campaign progressed, the membership dues would be reduced across the board in proportion to the progress of the campaign.  Once the campaign reached its end and the full endowment had been acquired, the dues would fall to zero and the membership model would be dismantled.

You might wonder where the blinking font the W3C could get that kind of money, even over the course of a decade.  Well, 20 Internet billionaires could each donate $10 million in thanks for the W3C making their fortunes possible, and there you go.  Even if that doesn’t happen, there are many foundations whose goal is to foster better technology and communications, and who might be persuaded to contribute.  Government grants could help.  And, of course, a supporter campaign like that run by the EFF would allow individual developers to add their support.

Frankly, I don’t think the problem would be finding the money, especially over a ten-year period.  By hiring an experienced fund-raiser, I think the funds could be raised a good deal more quickly.  I think this would be especially true if Sir Tim publicly put his weight behind the effort, and made personal appeals to potential major donors.

But why would I even suggest such a thing?

  1. The current membership model creates an apparent wall between the W3C and the rest of us.  Because it costs a minimum of $15,000 over three years to become a W3C Member, individuals will rarely, if ever, be able to justify membership.  The same is true of web design and development shops.

    For primarily this reason, there is the belief that non-paying members of the community cannot join Working Groups, and that the WGs are forever closed to the rest of the world.  This is not really true, since any Working Group can ask people in the community to become Invited Experts.  These are Working Group members who don’t have to pay to get in, and aren’t necessarily held to the same contribution standards as Member representatives.  (Not that contribution standards are always upheld for them either, as I observed in an earlier post.)

    So now imagine a W3C where there are no Members.  That means that every Working Group is comprised entirely of Invited Experts (except for any W3C staff members who might join).  This bridges the perceived gap, and puts community members on a more equal footing with those who would currently be Member representatives.  I’m not saying there wouldn’t be company representatives at all.  The CSS WG is going to have representatives from Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, and so on.  The alternative is for them to not participate, and thus be at the mercy of what happens in their absence.

    Since someone’s going to bring it up, I’ll address the Microsoft question.  You might think that Microsoft could decide to both abandon, say, the CSS WG and ignore what it produces.  (Anyone could do this, but Microsoft is going to be the company accused of hypothetically plotting such a thing.)  That could well be.  But wouldn’t Microsoft departing the CSS WG be a large red flag that something’s seriously wrong, and that it needs to be addressed before worrying about exactly how the layout module is written?

    Of course, some other player could do this as easily as Microsoft.  The point is really that, if a major player in the space with which the WG is concerned departs that WG, then it identifies a situation that needs to be addressed.  The Member model actually goes some small way toward concealing that, because the dues paid create a certain impetus to put someone on a WG, even if there’s no serious interest.

    The flip side of this is the question, which I’ve heard more than once from people when I talk about this idea, “How would a WG force the players to the table?”  For example, how could a new browser-technology WG force the browser makers to join the group?

    The question itself betrays a fallacious assumption: that players should be forced to work together.  If you propose to form a WG that doesn’t interest one or more of the major players in the field, then the WG may well be flawed from the start.  The point of a WG is to produce an interoperable standard.  If a WG just goes off and does something without buy-in from players, and there’s never an implementation, then the whole effort was wasted.  On the other hand, a specification that was produced with the involvement of all the major players stands a much better chance of being implemented, and thus a much better chance of being used and appreciated by the community.

    The flip side of that flip side is the question, “What if a WG refuses to admit a player in the field?”  In other words, what if the CSS WG barred Microsoft from having a representative on the WG?  Again, that would be an enormous red flag that something had gone awry.  Any WG that refused to involve an important player in their field would need to be scrutinized, and probably reformatted.

    All this does raise the spectre of replacing a centralized model with a consensus model.  Which is just fine with me, for all the reasons I just mentioned.

  2. There is the perception—largely untrue, but no less persistent—that the W3C is controlled by those who fund it.

    It’s actually been my experience that there’s an inverse correlation between the amount of money a company puts into the W3C and the frequency with which their representatives get their way.  During my time in the CSS WG, the Microsoft people faced more resistance and more grief from the rest of the WG than the Netscape reps ever dreamed of getting.  CSS-like things which IE/Win had done faced a serious uphill battle to be incorporated in the specification, even when they were good ideas.  I don’t know how to explain this odd variance from the usual effect of money, but it was there.  Maybe in other WGs, the situation is different, although I kind of doubt it.

    But as I say, the perception is persistent.  A financially independent W3C would remove that perception.  I wouldn’t propose this kind of funding-model change solely to clear up some erroneous perceptions, but it’s an undeniably positive side effect.

  3. Full financial independence allows the W3C to do things that its dues-paying Members likely wouldn’t permit.

    Now what could I be talking about, since I just claimed that dues money doesn’t drive what the W3C does, except in inverse ways?  What I’m talking about is things like launching a program to pay Invited Experts a small stipend.  Currently, Invited Experts receive no financial support, whereas Member representatives are supported by their employers while devoting some of their time to the W3C.  I tried to imagine a world where the dues-paying Members of the W3C approved the idea of paying Experts, and although I managed to do so, it turned out to be entirely populated by talking kawaii unicorns who get joyfully teary about their perpetually rainbow-filled skies and giggle a lot.

    Here’s another W3C effort which probably could never get funded under the current model:  a university scholarship for students who plan to study the web, or uses of the web.  They might fund independent research on the effects of the web in developing countries, or what users want, or any number of other things.  Or hey, how about putting enough money into the WWW conference series that people who present papers are given a complimentary registration?  (I know—radical!)

    These things couldn’t happen if the W3C’s endowment generated only enough interest to cover staffing and overhead, but the endowment doesn’t have to be limited to just that much.  A second capital campaign, or a simple continuation of the first one, could increase the endowment, thus giving the W3C (potentially) quite a bit of discretionary funding.  It would give them the opportunity to spend money on efforts that advance their core mission (“To lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web”).

There are various knock-on effects that arise from those points, of course, but I’ve gone on long enough.

As many of you have noticed, I’m effectively proposing that the W3C become a foundation instead of a consortium, albeit a foundation whose primary mission is to act as a consortium would.  I’ve avoided using terms like “non-profit” and “not-for-profit” because they might imply specific things which I don’t fully intend in terms of tax law, or whatever, but I do think of it as a generically non-profit institution; that is, one that does not strive to create a profit, except as can be invested into the endowment.

I’ve tried to explain why I believe this is a good idea, but in the end, I think the most fundamental reason is that one I can’t explain:  it just feels like the right thing to do.  It’s like I can perceive a shape without grasping all its details, but the overall shape looks right, looks better.

I fully expect that some will recoil from this idea, convinced that a foundation is a poor substitute for a consortium.  Obviously, I disagree.  I think the W3C’s future could be made much more stable with this approach, especially in financial terms.  I also believe, as I said before, that it would be no less of a force for the advancement of the web.  In fact, I think it would be a much stronger force, and have a greater positive effect, over the long term.

It is not a small undertaking, but it is an important and worthwhile effort, and I hope it is one the W3C considers seriously.

W3C Change: Working Groups

The second area where I think the W3C could be improved is in how Working Groups are populated and managed.  To a large extent, what I propose is just a re-commitment to existing rules, and isn’t particularly radical.  That doesn’t make them any less important, of course.  Furthermore, this area of discussion doesn’t boil down to one talking point; rather, it boils down to three.

First is this: participants in a Working Group should be productive, or else leave the group, whether voluntarily or otherwise.

This is really already part of the rules, but it’s not very well enforced, in my experience.  I mean that personally, too: between mid-2003 and mid-2004, I contributed almost nothing to the CSS WG.  I didn’t even phone in for teleconferences, let alone contribute to specifications.  Now, as an Invited Expert, the participation rules aren’t quite the same for me as they are for Member representatives, but by any measure, I was deadweight.  I was only on the WG membership list out of inertia.

When the WG’s charter came up for renewal in 2004, the chair asked me if I wanted to stay in the group and start contributing again.  After some reflection, I said no, because I wasn’t going to magically have more time and energy to give to the WG.  To stay would have been dishonest at best, so I left.

Honestly, though, he should have asked me the same question (and been a little more pointed about it) six months previously.  WG chairs should do the same for any member who falls silent.  The actual reasons for the silence don’t matter, because having a WG member step down isn’t a permanent excommunication.  It’s simply an acknowledgment that the person is too busy to be a contributing member, and so leaves the group, whether temporarily or for good.

Ideally, people would voluntarily do this upon recognizing their lack of participation, but not everyone would.  I didn’t, until I was prompted.  WG chairs should prompt when necessary, and even be empowered to place someone on inactive status if they don’t contribute but refuse to step down.  Again, this isn’t a permanent decision, and it isn’t punishment.  It’s just keeping the WG membership list aligned with those who are actually contributing.

This brings me to the second point, related very closely to the first: Working Groups should have a minimum membership requirement.

If a WG doesn’t have enough members to operate, then it needs to be mothballed.  Simple as that.  If you had ten WG members and eight of them went silent, leaving you with only two active members, then it’s time to close up shop for a while.  No WG would ever be permanently shuttered this way:  it would simply be placed on “inactive” status.  Once enough people committed to being contributing WG members, it could be re-activated.  Granted, this would require a re-chartering and all the other things necessary during that process.

I also have to figure that if a WG was in danger of going inactive, some of the group’s members would get involved again.  If not, word would spread and community members would step up to offer their help.  And if none of that happened, then it would be a pretty strong indication that the WG did need to be shut down, for general lack of interest.

Of course, all this requires a WG chair who is willing to hold people’s feet to the fire, to cut inactive members, and to shut down his own WG if there aren’t enough active participants.  But then WG chairs are already required to do a lot of things, and not all of them get done.  Some are trivial; some are not.

The biggest obstacle a WG can face is its own chair, if said chair is abrasive or obstructionist or just plain out of touch.  As things stand, the only way to lodge a complaint against a chair is by working your way up the chain of command at the W3C.  That’s a pretty flat set of rather short chains, though.  In many cases, it doesn’t take a whole lot of steps to reach Sir Tim himself.  And there are even cases where WG chairs are their own bosses, hierarchically speaking, which makes it hard to effectively lodge complaints.

Thus we come to my third suggestion: there needs to be a “vote of no confidence” mechanism for WG chairs.

This is nothing more than a vote by the members of a Working Group:  do we keep our chair, or should he step down?  In this way, the WG itself can decide when it’s time for a leader to go.  I get a little wobbly over the actual vote threshold: should a chair be removed if half the WG votes against him, or two-thirds?  Tough call.  Probably a majority, on the theory that any WG with that many people opposed to the chair is already in deep trouble.

I’m also unable to decide whether I’d have these votes happen automatically, on a set schedule—say, every year right before the March Technical Plenary—or only when a member of the WG calls for one.  Both approaches have pros and cons.  I think my slight preference is for the set schedule, but on the other hand, requiring a member of the WG to call for a “no confidence” vote would be useful, in that the mere call for a vote would serve as its own indication of trouble in a WG, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

So that’s how I’d reform WG membership and leadership:  participants need to be active; WGs need a minimum membership to continue; and WGs should be able to remove their own chairs when necessary.

W3C Change: Outreach

My first suggestion for improving the W3C is this:  every Working Group should have one member whose primary (and possibly sole) responsibility is outreach.

To make life a little easier, I’m going to refer to this position as a WGO (for Working Group Outreach).  As an aside, I’m not sure that “outreach” is exactly the right term for what I have in mind, but it’s a decent term that captures most of what I have in mind, so I’ll use it here.  If someone comes up with a better term, I’ll be grateful.

So here’s what I envision for a WGO.

  1. The WGO keeps the public informed about the top issues on the Working Group’s agenda and immediate-future activities.  The easiest, most obvious way to do this is to post a summary of every WG FTF (face-to-face) meeting.  A summary would describe the topics the WG discussed, resolutions that were reached, which problems were not solved, and so forth.  This could be a bullet-point list, but a better summary would be something like a short article.

    Note that I do not say that the WGO should post the FTF minutes, which are often private.  The results of those discussions, though, should be public, even when no results occurred.  A summary can say that the WG discussed a topic at length and reached no resolution without saying why.  It can also say that a topic was discussed and a solution found, and then describe the solution.

    A really good WGO would produce an activity summary more often than every FTF.  I don’t know that I’d insist on a summary for every weekly teleconference, but sending out a summary once a month would be more than reasonable.  These summaries would be posted on the W3C site and to the relevant public mailing lists.  For the CSS WGO, this would always mean posting to www-style.  In cases where WG activity touched on features of XHTML or SVG, summary posts would be made to those public lists as well.

    The purpose here is to draw back some of the curtain surrounding Working Groups.  Too often, interested members of the public don’t know what the WG is up to, and that can be frustrating.  If there are several people agitating for a new feature and the WG stays silent on it, it’s impossible to tell if the WG is blowing the idea off or if it’s something they’ve considered at length but haven’t yet reached a decision.

    Public summaries also have the benefit of allowing some public discussion of work before the public-comment period on a proposed specification.  This would help distribute the WG’s feedback load.

  2. The WGO brings the needs and concerns of the public to the Working Group, and communicates back the WG’s reactions.  This means part of the WGO’s job is to be involved in the wider community surrounding a given activity.  The CSS WGO, for example, would spend time reading web design mailing lists, forums, blogs, and so forth to find out what people in the field want and need (in CSS terms, anyway).  The WGO would present these to the WG as items to consider.  The topics so raised, and the WG’s responses to them, would go into the next summary.

    The goal here, of course, is to have someone on the Working Group who represents the “in the trenches” folks.  If there are other members of the WG who also represent those who work in the field, that’s awesome.  With the WGO position, though, there’s the assurance of at least one person who speaks for those who actually use the products of the Working Group, and who will use any future products.

  3. The presence of a WGO in a Working Group should be a charter condition.  No group should be (re-)chartered without an identified WGO, and the extended lack of a WGO should be cause to question the continued charter of a group.

    Basically, I’m of the opinion that if a WG can’t find someone passionate enough about what they’re doing to be the WGO, then it’s time to ask whether or not they should continue at all.  Similarly, if there’s no real community for the WGO to represent, then it’s time to ask why the WG even exists.

  4. The WGO should have no other major responsibilites within the Working Group.  This means the WGO cannot be the WG’s chair, and should not be a specification editor.  Their primary job should be the two-way representation I’ve described here.

    It’s too easy to get overloaded in a WG, especially if you’re the kind of enthusiast a good WGO should be.  There needs to be a defined limit to the position, so that outreach is always topmost on that person’s agenda within the WG, and it doesn’t get buried under other duties.

In summary, a good WGO would act as a liason between the Working Group and the community surrounding it.  A great WGO would do all that and also produce information that helps expand that community.  They could publish quick how-to’s, for example, concentrating on either current or near-future specifications.

If you could, please allow me to illustrate my points with a few things that a CSS WGO might do in the course of their duties.  I’ll call this CSS WGO “Bob” to make the example less clumsy.

Recently, Bob’s been seeing a lot of calls on blogs for an “ancestor” selector.  This would be something that lets you say, “style this element based on its descendants”, such as styling all links that contain an image without having to class them.  (This idea has come up many times in the past, by the way, but has yet to be added to CSS.)  So Bob brings the “ancestor selector” subject to the WG.  The WG says, “Yes, that’s a very good idea, but it runs aground on the following problems.”  Bob would then put all that into his next summary: “The WG is in favor of adding the ancestor selector, but the following problems prevent its inclusion…”  Bob could certainly also communicate the response directly, through mailing lists or blogs, instead of just putting the response in the summary.  The latter is necessary, of course, but doing both is better.

How is this better?  Because the community knows the WG has considered the idea, where the WG stands on the idea, and the reasons why it hasn’t been accepted.  Everyone knows where the sticking points lie, and can make suggestions to overcome them, instead of just guessing as to why the requested feature hasn’t been adopted.  As for the reasons, they could be anything from “that’s demonstrably impossible in an entropic universe” to “not enough implementors have committed to doing it”.  As long as we know what the roadblock is, we can act accordingly.

Furthermore, Bob might accompany a new version of the Advanced Layout module with a quick how-to article that describes how to do a certain common layout, one that’s very hard to do in current CSS, with the stuff in the new module.  This provides a quick, “wow cool!” introduction to the WG’s efforts, which can energize the community and also draw in new people.

I will readily grant that many WGs have what are effectively unofficial WGOs; in a lot of ways, you could argue that I’ve been a WGO for years, as have several other people, through books and articles and forum participation and blogging and so on.  That’s not enough.  There needs to be someone inside the Working Group who is focused on explaining to the world what the WG is doing and who is explaining to the WG what the world is doing, or at least trying to do.

So that’s the first of my three major suggestions for reforming the W3C: an outreach person for every Working Group.

W3C Change: Introduction

When I posted about the W3C, a few people responded with, “All right, fine, you’re angry with the W3C.  So what’s your alternative, smart guy?”  A fair enough question.

While I applaud the efforts of the WHAT WG and the microformats community, I’m not advocating a complete dismissal of the W3C.  The basic role filled by the W3C, that of being a central meeting place and coordinating body, is an important one.  It’s also potentially damaging.  Think of it like a central file server at work.  As long as the server is fine, your work can continue.  If it goes offline or, worse, its contents get corrupted, you’re in a very bad position.

When I point to the WHAT WG and microformats, I’m not holding them up as saviors or replacements.  I’m simply drawing attention to effects of the basic problem.  Both communities arose because of the nature and (lack of) speed of the W3C and its work.  We could argue about whether or not they should replace the W3C, but the simple fact is that had the W3C been more responsive and in touch with developer needs, they would never have existed in the first place.  They wouldn’t have had to exist.

If the W3C can get back on track, I wouldn’t want to see it replaced.  If it can’t, then it will be replaced, no matter what I or anyone else has to say.  That doesn’t mean it would cease to exist, of course.  It would simply become less and less relevant.  I have some ideas about how the W3C might avoid such a fate, but they aren’t things that I can cover in a single post.  Instead, I’ll do it in three parts, and the three topic areas I’m going to address are:

No small potatoes, those.  It will be interesting to find out what people think of my proposals for each.

Running Toward Austin

I swear I haven’t forgotten the W3C thing.  Life has just gotten very (and largely unexpectedly) overwhelming of late, and I’ve been falling further and further behind on everything.  To make matters worse, the ideas I want to put forth regarding the W3C are really too long for a single post, no matter how much time I have available.  In fact, I think it’ll take three posts.  I hope to write those soon.  Then again, I’ve been hoping that about a lot of things recently, as my tax attorney and at least two editors can attest.

Before I let it slip any further away, though, I do want to belatedly mention that An Event Apart Austin is open for registration.  Also, this is a great opportunity to mention actual timely news: we’ve just this evening announced that our special guest speaker in Austin will be none other than Molly Holzschlag, who will be giving a talk on designing from the content out.

Don’t miss it, ya’ll!

Five Years Ago

Kat and I don’t really drink alcohol, so when we check into a hotel, we typically refuse the minibar key.  That way, we know that anything missing from the minibar has nothing to do with us.  Early on our morning of 11 September 2001, Kat was doing her best to break into the minibar in our hotel room in Sunnyvale, California.

“Kat”, I said hollowly, standing behind her, “I’m not sure this is really a valid coping mechanism.”

“What are you talking about?” she snapped.  “This is a perfectly valid coping mechanism!”

Not too much later, feeling the desperate need to be around other people, we went down to the hotel lobby, where several had clustered around the lounge television in silent horror.  There we discovered that the hotel management agreed with Kat: they were serving free drinks from the bar.  I was struck that day by how few drinks people actually consumed.  It was as if we were all so numbed that alcohol offered little further benefit.

What I remember most about that day is the confusion.  When we first turned on the TV, having been woken by a phone call from a friend, the crawl on CNN claimed a bomb had gone off outside the State Department.  There was a blurred image above it that I had trouble resolving for several seconds, before I finally realized it was the plume of smoke coming off of the Pentagon.  And when we saw the footage of the towers on fire, the South Tower being hit by a plane, and then both collapses, the images came one right after another in rapid sequence.  There was no extended period of horror for us, no building from one stage to the next.  We were literally jolted awake and passed in a very few minutes from Before to After.  It was difficult to grasp.  Almost impossible.

That afternoon, we drove almost aimlessly around Silicon Valley, listening to NPR even though they were covering the same few known facts in an endless loop, just like every other media outlet.  The difference was that with NPR, we did not have to watch the same few known videos in an endless loop.

We stopped for lunch, tried to talk about other things, and found we could not.  We kept going over what had happened, what we thought, what we feared.  Trying to clear up some of the confusion, trying to sift a little order out of the chaos, trying to steel ourselves for the possibility of worse to come.

We were a long way from home and family, but we were incredibly fortunate in that we were together.  It was an indescribable blessing in a day that seemed almost incapable of admitting them.  We clung together under an open blue California sky, so very much like the one over New York City, and each helped the other keep moving onward, one tentative step at a time.

Print Calibration Chip

For whatever reason, I actually prefer Pringle’s “Right Crisps”, which is the lower-fat version of the chip, to the regulars.  Still, Kat tries on occasion to introduce me to new things, and one recent attempt was a purchase of Pringles Prints.

Now, I think the idea of printing text on a potato chip is kind of cool, even if it’s in this kind of odd light Windex blue; I have to wonder what’s in the ‘ink’.  Disappointingly, the facts printed on the chips were pretty basic, not to mention focused almost solely on dinosaurs and elephants for the first half of the can.  I found this kind of funny, but admit it makes sense as I assume the target demographic for these chips is the kids, who love big animals.  But I don’t know how the folks at Proctor & Gamble can live with themselves when they’re pushing facts like, “Did you know?  Elephants do not live alone — they travel in herds.”

Maybe that’s a major revelation when you’re six, but I have to figure that if you know much of anything about elephants, you know that much.  I smell filler text.  Somebody was on a deadline to come up with a certain number of facts, and got desperate.

Anyway, I brought all this up because right near the middle of the can, I found out that even potato chip makers have to calibrate their printers.

You can see it in more detail on Flickr.

September 2006
August October