Opera: is the fat lady singing for the CSS group?

Opera, the people behind the Opera browser (which as it’s only used by about 1% of the population, you might not have heard of unless you work in IT) have filed an anti-trust complaint against Microsoft, arguing that Microsoft is abusing it’s dominant position as the supplier of the industry’s most widely used operating system (Microsoft Windows and all the varieties thereof) to maintain a dominant position in the browser markets by tying Internet Explorer into Windows.

Opera have requested that the European Commission unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows and carry other browsers pre-installed on the desktop, and also that it requests that the Commission requires Microsoft to follow open web standards (full details are available via Opera’s press release)

I’m not going to discuss the legality or otherwise of Microsoft’s stance, save to say that I would like Microsoft to provide better support for standards, and I would like to have a situation where home (and non tech-savvy) users could buy a PC pre-bundled with Firefox, Opera or even Safari for Windows. But the fact that I’d like to see this happen does not in itself mean that Microsoft have been abusing a monopolistic position, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

By the way, if you haven’t tried at least one of the above, give them a shot. They are nice browsers.

Obviously, this has opened a can of worms, stirred up a nest of hornets, caused a few eyebrows to be raised and indeed even made a few people post about it in the internet bloggy communities. Eric Meyer has suggested that it is bad timing to come out with something like this when Microsoft have recently (with IE7) taken considerable steps towards standards. I think he’s right to acknowledge that while Microsoft aren’t there yet, they have made enormous strides (and I don’t mean big trousers) with IE7.

The much respected designer, mod, and invited expert to the W3C CSS Working Group, Andy Clarke, certainly sees this as stirring things up, even going as far to publicly say:

I am calling on Bert Bos, chairman of the CSS Working Group, and those higher up within the W3C including Sir Tim Berners Lee, to immediately disband the CSS Working Group in its current formAndy Clarke

Likely to be quite a controversial suggestion, methinks?

Jeffrey Zeldman certainly seems to think so, with his reply to Andy indicating that he doesn’t quite see the connection between Opera’s lawsuit and the call to disband the working group, pointing out that vendors have been suing each other since the information superhighway was just a dirt track.

From this side of the pond however, I have to say that I agree with Andy when he suggests that since browser vendors have quite a significant say in how CSS is driven forwards, it might be quite difficult to get Microsoft and Opera around a table working with each other as a result of this complaint.

Andy goes on to suggest some proposals for the new CSS Working Group, saying that while browser vendors ought to still be involved in the new working group, they ought to be in the role of technical advisors, that the W3C needs to audit the existing CSS modules, look at employing core staff with a skilled project manager (which to me is critical: a well managed project may fail, but a poorly managed project will fail), and to set out clearly defined timetables.

Whether anything actually changes or not remains to be seen. But I certainly think something ought to be done to shake up the glacial and (at least seemingly) vendor-dominated W3C working groups, and if Andy’s call to action provokes sufficient debate to actually change something, then it will have been worthwhile.

My experience is that the public do want to contribute, but like Andy says, you can’t always achieve the right answers by consensus. Sometimes you need strong leadership; a strong character with sufficient experience and expertise to drive through the necessary changes.

Unfortunately Andy has ruled himself out, which leaves the ball not quite in the W3C’s court: we need someone with sufficient gravitas to be prepared to step forward, someone who will be accepted by developers, designers and vendors to lead the development of CSS forward. If no-one can be found who is willing to take on that role, how can we shake things up?

Firstly we need to consider whether the W3C is willing to consider changing the CSS Working Group (and perhaps Working Groups in general?). If not, this whole thing is dead in the water (unless people want to start setting out their own alternative standards, but that leads us back to the browser wars mess that caused the whole problem in the first place); and frankly I’d rather have half-arsed standards that develop over geological timescales than no standards at all.

But if the CSS Working Group are willing to consider changing their procedures, then we need a charismatic figure who is respected by designers, developers and browser vendors: who can demonstrate the leadership and management skills necessary to drive forward the development of CSS.

In addition, I also think that sort of task would require someone who has a large degree of fairness and reasonableness, and that’s why, were there to be a CSS Leadership Election, I’d be voting for Eric Meyer. But as we’re not having a CSS Leadership Election, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens…

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