Web technologies and standards are central to just about everything discussed so far in this series so this month we turn our attention to web standards. In this month’s interview, Bill Kasdorf, Principal, Kasdorf & Associates, LLC, Founding Partner, Publishing Technology Partners and W3C Global Publishing Evangelist, explains how the W3C develops standards as varied as XML, HTML, URI, and EPUB through the efforts of volunteers. He also connects the related efforts of other standards organizations and explains why scholarly publishers should get more involved in work that affects us all, directly or indirectly.
INTERVIEW WITH BILL KASDORF
Interview by Jennifer Kemp
WHAT DOES INFRASTRUCTURE MEAN TO YOU/THE W3C IN THE CONTEXT OF WEB STANDARDS?
The best way to think about this is that web standards are the infrastructure of your infrastructure. Most people think of “the Web” as just being what they see in their browser. The W3C is responsible for creating and maintaining scores of standards (called “Recommendations”) that comprise the Open Web Platform–from ubiquitous ones like XML, HTML, and CSS to WCAG, the Semantic Web, and many more–on which most modern infrastructures are based, along with related standards from IETF, ISO and others. Research, education, publishing, dissemination, and consumption infrastructures–whether proprietary or open–are mostly based on web technology.
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU DO/HOW WEB STANDARDS WORK TO PEOPLE UNFAMILIAR WITH IT?
The W3C has a very formal process for the development of standards. The development is done by teams of individual volunteers from a wide variety of industries from all over the world, from Microsoft and Google and Apple to the smallest startup, who, when joining a Working Group, stipulate that any of their contributions to the standard they’re working to develop will be free of any IP claims from them. The resulting standards are free to use, open, and free of patent claims, so anybody can just use them. They’re also all subject to what’s called “horizontal review” to ensure that they have taken accessibility, internationalization, security, privacy, and alignment with the web’s technical architecture into account.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU WISH ‘SILICON VALLEY’ WOULD DO OR DO DIFFERENTLY TO BETTER SUPPORT WEB STANDARDS?
First, I should say that “Silicon Valley” really does support web standards in a significant way. Most of the major players are members of the W3C and active in its work. However, there is an understandable tendency for the major browsers to implement functionality according to their own priorities, especially when they see either opportunity or pressure from users. Sometimes that means they drag their feet implementing things they really should implement. For example, it still isn’t possible to just open up an EPUB in a browser. (That was available for a while in Edge, but Edge recently moved to Chromium and EPUB went away.) You need a reading application or plugin to do that. That used to be the case for PDF. Today, we should be able to click on a link to an EPUB and have it just open up in the browser the way a PDF now does.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU WISH NON-TECHNICAL PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD BETTER ABOUT THE CHALLENGES OF WEB STANDARDS?
That they’re created by the people who show up to do the work! The reason I took on the role of W3C Global Publishing Evangelist is that I’m passionate about the need for people in under-represented sectors of publishing–scholarly publishing being the prime example in the FORCE11 context–to join the W3C and get to work making the Web and web standards ever better, e.g., for scholarly research and publishing. The same goes for education, corporate publishing, and other sectors. That’s why EPUB is mainly optimized for books, and mainly used for trade books. Trade book and ebook people are mostly who showed up to develop EPUB. If few or no folks from an area join in the work, the things they need to have addressed don’t necessarily get addressed.
HOW, IF AT ALL, DO WEB STANDARDS DIFFER FOR TEXT VS DATA OR JOURNALS, BOOKS, ETC.?
Fundamentally, one of the virtues of web standards is that they span all those areas. So, for example, as the concept of an article as an artifact of research expands to include data, software, protocols, etc., web standards are mainly used to address those new needs. But as I mentioned in my previous answer, the level of attention given to those various needs is not evenly distributed: it’s dependent upon the people who join in to do the work. To be frank, getting scholarly publishers to the table, with a few notable exceptions like Wiley, has been frustrating. (This is where I should mention that the W3C staff person who oversees virtually all of the publishing work is Ivan Herman–one of the founders of FORCE11!)
WHAT OTHER AREAS OF INFRASTRUCTURE DO YOU WORK MOST CLOSELY WITH/ARE MOST DEPENDENT ON (& HOW)?
I am actually a member of a number of different standards organizations and related organizations. For example, I’m a member of the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC), the main technical standards organization for the news industry. There are IPTC standards that are virtually unknown outside the news industry that would be very valuable to others. (A recent exception: Google just used one to provide rights information in Google Images.) The IPTC also contributes to W3C work on occasion. For example, the IPTC was instrumental in developing what became ODRL, the W3C Open Digital Rights Language, that is incredibly useful but is still little known outside of the IPTC community. Another answer to your question: in my consulting work, I deal mainly with editorial and production workflow and infrastructure for publishing, with a special focus on accessibility.
EXPLAIN IN SOME DETAIL THE ISSUE YOU THINK IS THE MOST VEXING/INTERESTING/CONSEQUENTIAL/ETC.
I think I already answered that: getting broader participation from all sectors of publishing involved in this work. That also leads to my answer to the next question.
IN A PERFECT WORLD, HOW WOULD WEB STANDARDS BE FUNDED AND GOVERNED?
It won’t surprise you for me to say that I think the way the W3C works is pretty darn ideal. It is a big, broad, global community of technologists who volunteer their time to develop and maintain the W3C’s standards, and the W3C collaborates actively with other important standards organizations like IETF and ISO. W3C standards are not official until they have had the appropriate horizontal review mentioned above (accessibility, internationalization, security, privacy, and alignment with the web technical architecture) and they are adopted by consensus. The resulting standards are royalty free, open, and cost nothing to use. What funds this are almost exclusively the dues of all those hundreds of member organizations. The result is that nobody owns the standards, and anybody can join in to maintain and refine them and to develop new ones.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE BLOGS, CONFERENCES, TWITTER ACCOUNTS, ETC. FOR KEEPING UP WITH THE WIDER WEB STANDARDS COMMUNITY?
Things I follow cover more than just standards, but keep me tuned in to the industry (including standards). I’d cite The Scholarly Kitchen, Clarke & Esposito’s “The Brief,” Kathy Sandler’s weekly “Technology | Innovation | Publishing,” NISO’s Newsline, and the EDItEUR newsletter. I actually don’t spend much time in social media (though I do have Twitter and LinkedIn accounts) but I have a wonderful network of really smart people doing really interesting work. So for example I have a meeting set for tomorrow with Mark Graham of the Internet Archive to discuss what he’s working on–he’s interested in talking about links for books and journals among other things. I’m also meeting with a client who is doing really excellent semantic technology and taxonomy work. The new EPUB 3 Working Group is starting up in the W3C–a bunch of really smart and interesting people. And I’m in meetings with folks like George Kerscher and Richard Orme of the Daisy Consortium, the accessibility organization, at least a couple of times a week. My life is full of conversations, emails, texts, blogs, articles, and meetings that keep me on top of what’s going on.
FAVORITE LITTLE-KNOWN FACT OR UNSUNG HERO OF WEB STANDARDS?
I’ll give you a favorite anecdote about two heroes. When the W3C celebrated its 25th anniversary a few years ago, there was a banquet with no announced speaker. But before the dinner was served Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf got up before the crowd wearing all-but-identical t-shirts. Sir Tim’s said “I didn’t invent the Internet” and Vint Cerf’s said “I didn’t invent the Web.” Then they turned around. The back of Tim’s said “I invented the Web” and Vint Cerf’s said “I invented the Internet.” (No, Al Gore wasn’t there.) How’s that for a geeky anecdote?
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH WE ASKED BUT DIDN’T AND WHY?
“How does somebody get involved?” Just email me. It’s my job–and my mission–to help you do just that.