XHTML, XML, W3C and the Importance of Open Standards

» The Wild, Wild Web

Snake Oil Salesmen, Gunslingers, Bandits and Galoots
If you’re new to the world of cyberspace, and looking to build yourself an e-business, think of the Web in much the same way as you’d think of the Old West. Law enforcement is spotty, rules and regulations are inconsistent and the landscape is populated with bandits, snake oil salesmen, gunslingers and other galoots out to hoodwink the tenderfoot just off the stagecoach — you!

Chances are, as the new dude in town, you don’t know much about Web site design, implementation, maintenance and connectivity and so, you’re farming out this critical phase of your new business endeavor to someone more experienced, someone who knows his HTML from a hole in the ground and — someone you don’t know at all.

Maybe you’re about to outsource the project to a bandit or a snake oil salesman who talks in a language filled with gibberish — HTTP, XML, spidering, landing page and other jargon of the Internet world. Whoa, hold up there, pardner. Before you pump a bunch of greenbacks into your project, you’d better take a crash course on surviving in this strange, new world. After all, you don’t want to make costly mistakes at the outset of your venture — mistakes from which you may not cover. Boot Hill in Cyberville is filled with failed e-businesses and without a bit of preparation, yours could be the next tombstone.

So, what do you look for? What questions do you ask? And, how do you measure the success of the company or individual who stands to make or break your e-dreams a reality?

You Are the Boss…
Even if you don’t know an SE algorithm from a six-shooter, you’re the guy with the checkbook and that automatically makes you the boss. You call the shots, you direct the activity and you set the bar, so where to begin.

  • Start by creating a list of what you want (or need) your Web site to do. Just looking for an e-billboard with some contact information? Easy, and in the competitive market of Web design firms — inexpensive.
  • As you develop a list of site needs, consider your business model. Do you want customers to be able to purchase and pay for your offerings on-line? Do you want dancing text, video clips of your office, a help line and other bells and whistles?
  • Before you contact a Web site design firm, know what you absolutely must have, what you’d like and what can wait for until your first million rolls in from the sale of your goods or services. You can always add on later — at a cost.

…But You’re Still the Tenderfoot
It’s up to you to set the requirements for your site. By defining these requirements, you stand a much better chance of getting a final product that will meet your standards, cost less to develop and enable you to verify the quality of your e-business by measurements that can actually be measured — important things like the generation of new sales revenues and an ever-expanding client or customer base.

Open Standards and Why You Need Them, Want Them, Love Them
Uniform standards for the development of Web commerce sites work to your advantage and, parenthetically, improves the Web as a whole. If you’re old enough to remember the rancorous battle between Sony’s beta format and Philips’ VHS standard back in the early days of the video wars, you can understand the importance of uniform, open standards because your Sony Beta tape was incompatible with your VHS deck, and we all know how that battle turned out. When was the last time you saw the local Beta Barn? That was one business owner who made the wrong choice with regard to standards and today, Beta video is as relevant as 8-track cassettes.

In recent years, industry professionals have been advocating standards compliance on the Web. Think about it. With uniform standards and protocols across the entire Web community, professional site designers and software developers can build ever-stronger applications, shoring up the underpinnings of the entire Web world. This site can talk to that site. This consumer can move with ease from one site to another, no worries about incompatibility — it’s all standard and it’s all open, available information.

Will Your Site Be Outdated By Lunch Time?
In the olden days (that’s 5 years ago), with varying Web standards, diverse web site software and a host of compatibility issues, keeping up to date with the latest site architecture and programming was difficult — actually impossible. And this caused many sites to lose business, revenue and the sanity of the site’s owners.

However, that’s begun to change with the growing implementation of uniform standards using technologies developed by the entire Web community — programmers, site designers, Web masters, e-tailers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — the cyber landscape is changing and law and order has come to the Wild, Wild Web. Currently, close to 500 IT companies, organizations and Web-savvy individuals have contributed their knowledge and experience to develop the W3C standards that are fast becoming the uniform standards for the entire Internet.

The efforts of W3C, and similar Web world consensus builders, are adapting standard site architecture, while ensuring that diverse design and implementation technologies mesh to work together, thus creating uniformity and state-of-the-art protocols and modalities.

So What Does This Mean to Your Cyber Biz?
Go with outmoded site architecture, and changing six months from now is going to cost you beaucoup bucks. Choose the wrong messaging protocol and at least some of your clients or customers will get a “busy signal” when trying to reach you to ask about a simple billing question.

Changes in Web technology occur with each passing nanosecond. That’s why, before you contract with a Web design firm, you want to make sure that you’ve got a Web compliant site — one that can be adapted easily and inexpensively to the next, great new innovation.

On the other hand, if your site is built and maintained using the recognized, open standards for development and connectivity, your site and all of it’s functions will be understandable to any competent design firm. That’s just one of the beauties of open standards: you won’t be stuck with outmoded technology, updates and revisions can be handled by any knowledgeable chiphead and you can either back- or forward-engineer your site for optimum compatibility. Why? Because you’re using uniform, industry standards. Here’s a quote from the W3C Quality Assurance Web site that explains it in a nutshell:

“Because (uniform) standards are built to be combined, developing new applications from an existing base is much easier: the tools to manipulate open technologies get more sophisticated, more numerous, and more powerful all the time. Moving your (existing) Web pages to XHTML, for instance, means that you can easily transform the data to other formats using XSLT, or ask for a powerful publishing system with validating mechanisms using XML Schema. And for each of these operations, you can choose from a wide range of tools from many different producers.”W3C Quality Assurance

Now, isn’t that just what you were thinking? No? Well how about the use of CSS — Cascading Style Sheets that enable you to segregate your screen presentations (the stuff visitors actually see upon landing on your site) from the underlying programming that is actually used to create this storefront for the customer. This saves money when you change your text or on-screen images (gifs, jpgs, etc.) and, by using CSS technology, you’ll save on bandwidth costs each month, meaning a smaller bill from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) each and every month. And though you may not know CSS technology, the design firm you hire to construct your site sure enough should.

Are There Even More Benefits To Using Open Standards in the Development of My Web Site?
We thought you’d never ask:

  • Open standards allows your design firm (and consequently you) to benefit from applications and methods that have been widely tested throughout the Web world.
  • Open standards are verified to ensure the widest accessibility to your site.
  • Open standards greatly simplify and reduce the costs required in the creation and support of web applications or dynamic web sites.
  • Open standards are becoming internationalized meaning you’ll be getting orders and inquiries from Albania to Zimbabwe.
  • Open standards are being incorporated into hardware, creating something called device independence — meaning your site can eventually be accessed by cell phone, wireless PDAs and, if necessary, by two tin cans connected by a string.

So What Should You Include in Your RFP?
Putting together a Request for a Proposal (RFP) is an excellent first step in getting the site you want and the features you need today and in the future. Here are some of the specifications you should insist on for deliverables:

1. Only use valid HTML. HTML is used by browsers to find your site. It’s the industry standard and will be for the foreseeable future.

2. Use Cascading Style Sheets throughout. Again, this enables you to change the appearance of your site quickly and easily, without ripping out large chunks of architecture or code.

3. Only use SVG and PNG for presentation of graphics and other images. These formats load faster and provide a lot of options for your site designer. BTW, don’t worry about SVG or PNG — any good design firm will use these formats as standard practice.

4. Insist that your site be accessible by all current and future means. Wouldn’t it be great if customers could access your site through a local ATM? Or by cell phone? Imagine the boost in traffic that access technology would deliver.

5. Make sure that your design and development firm uses only standards scripting languages. Again, this increases accessibility today and facilitates easy updates next week. This is an important consideration if you anticipate regular updates and changes to your site. (ON SALE THIS WEEK ONLY! BUY! BUY! BUY!)

6. Insist on approvals at all critical steps to ensure that you’re getting the site you want. Designers can use a variety of tools (software) in the development of your site and you want to work with a company that’s willing to listen to your needs, conform to your values and hold your hand throughout the entire process.

7. Be sure to include in your RFP, guarantees from the provider that revisions, debugging and other “must haves” are included in the final price. Even the best firms will need to tweak and will do so gladly. The worst firms won’t tweak once the check clears and you want some recourse.

Well, pardner, that about wraps it up here from the Wild, Wild Web. But at least now you know the importance to your future e-business of using open standards to grow your Web site as your grow your bottom line.

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