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Wired Digital Converts

In September of 2002, the popular Wired Digital site was reborn as a purely standards-compliant site: XHTML for data, CSS for presentation [4.20, 4.21]. Team leader Douglas Bowman [4.22] supervised the redesign and made standards compliance its number-one priority.

4.20. Wired Digital (www.wired.com) converted to standards in 2002, using XHTML for structure and CSS for layout.

4.21. Viewed in a noncompliant browser (in this case, Netscape 4), Wired Digital (www.wired.com) provides full content access but hides its layout, using the same technique deployed in the 2001 A List Apart standards redesign, and linking to The Web Standards Project's Browser Upgrades campaign to encourage holdouts to switch to a modern browser.

4.22. Although many designers and developers worked on the Wired Digital redesign, its standards orientation was largely due to the work and evangelism of one man, Douglas Bowman, who thereafter left Wired to run his own company, Stop Design. The Stop Design site (www.stopdesign.com) also makes brilliant use of CSS layout and well-structured XHTML.

As a high-traffic, highly visible site with a well-earned reputation for understanding and using web technology, Wired has long served as a beacon to the development community. Its conversion to web standards sent a clear signal to the industry that the time had come to put forward compatibility ahead of outmoded concerns.

Poop in the Soup

Validation errors initially clouded Wired Digital's launch. Some of these errors were caused by the Vignette content management system used by Wired's in-house editorial staff. Others were due to third-party advertising content built with invalid methods and improper URL handling. My agency, Happy Cog, has faced similar obstacles, and you might have encountered the same problem yourself. After you deliver compliant templates, an outdated content management system (CMS) adds junk markup and proprietary code, thereby wrecking the site's compliance. Add poop to your soup, and it's no longer a healthy meal.

In Wired's case, these problems were quickly remedied (mainly because Bowman insisted), and within a day or two of the launch, Wired Digital was a perfectly standards-compliant, large-scale commercial site. Not every company has the technological chops to fix errors introduced by Vignette and its brethren, nor can every company afford to do so.

For the web to progress, publishing tools must become standards-compliant (see the next sidebar, “Publishing Systems and Standards”). Site owners and managers must tell CMS vendors that compliance matters, just as designers and developers once told browser makers. If enough customers do this, the vendors might be willing to upgrade their tools, and achieving standards compliance will become that much easier.

Publishing Systems and Standards

Pure XHTML/CSS validation is rarely achieved on large-scale, commercial sites, even when the initial templates validate and the client and builders are fully committed to supporting W3C specifications. Admittedly, clients and builders who care are still too rare a breed. But those who do care often find their best efforts flummoxed by outdated middleware, compromised databases, and other such roadblocks.

As we noted earlier in this chapter, independent designers and developers have no problem authoring to the W3C's CSS and XHTML specs. Some even enjoy fixing commercial sites with which they are unaffiliated, bringing such sites up to spec with a few hours' work. (For instance, Eric Meyer has done this with the KPMG site discussed in Chapter 1.)

Valid XHTML and CSS and Priority 1 accessibility are not hard to achieve. Any halfway-competent designer or developer can do it. The problem lies in the large-scale systems and third-party content that must be integrated into most big sites.

To ensure the health and interoperability of our sites, we need content management systems that encourage compliant, accessible authoring practices instead of breaking them. We need those who build such systems to recognize that compromising the front end “to force a display issue” is no longer an acceptable option. And we need clients who are willing to invest in fixing systems that “work” at the expense of forward compatibility. It will take persuasion and it will take money.

There is no shortage of persuasion. Money is another story.

In a healthy economy, companies invest in R&D, training, and long-range planning. In a sick economy, companies focus on cutting costs, eliminating personnel and processes, and keeping their doors open for the next 24 hours. Encouraging designers and developers to learn compliant authoring methods is easy; show them the benefits. Coaxing struggling companies to invest in the long-term health of their web presence is the real challenge faced by those who would wrest the web out of the Dark Ages and turn its face to the light.

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