When Tim Berners-Lee gave the world a simple way to share documents over the internet in a common format, he demonstrated the true power of standards.
Web browsers could be developed to read and display documents in the HTML file format, enabling a worldwide web that could be accessed from any device with an internet connection.
But progress on the web has been a constant battle between innovation and standardisation. If the web had been based on a proprietary format, it may not have been as pervasive as it is. It would certainly have meant that some types of device would not have been web-enabled.
However, HTML is not the best format for accessing the full richness that the web now offers. Proprietary technologies such as Flash and ActiveX have become de facto standards for enhancing websites, and there are format wars between rival protocols – iTunes and MP3, for example.
The problem is that standards bodies cannot act as fast as a firm wishing to push out innovations onto the web. Decisions take a long time as committees argue the finer points of a technical standard.
IT companies watch closely what goes on in standards bodies: many have representatives on their committees. They are there to voice concerns and, in some cases, try to influence decisions to the benefit of their own proprietary systems.
As leaders from industry and academia head to Edinburgh this week for the WWW2006 conference, one thing is clear: the battle between innovation and standardisation is chewing away at the fabric of the web. One would hope that this will strike a chord among those focused on proprietary web innovation, because the next version of the web, Web 2.0, will be less accessible than what we have today unless a balance can be found.
This was first published in May 2006