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Web Standards: Fighting The Good Fight
By Zachary Chan - on 10 Nov 2010, 11:29am

As you read this, you are probably doing so on your preferred browser of choice. You would also have at least heard about the ongoing browser wars. Personally, my main browser is Opera, with everything else as backup depending on circumstance. 


It's ok if you're not to familiar with Opera. Although the history of the Opera browser predates even Firefox, its measly 2% desktop market share doesn't really make it well known among regular, non-techie, folk.

And yet, Opera Software, the company behind the Opera browser, have been one of the most significant developers of browser technology over the past 14 years. Opera was the browser to introduce what was then called the Multiple Document Interface. Today, we know this as tabbed browsing. Opera introduced the concept of Speed Dial shortcuts, a feature you now see in Chrome too. In terms of technology, Opera was the only browser that was developed to adhere to W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards from the very beginning. In fact, Håkon Wium Lie--the man who proposed the concept of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)--is the CTO at Opera Software. 

But, whenever I talk of browsers, the two replies I usually get are: “If Opera is so great, why does no one use it?” or “I've tried Opera before, but some of the sites I usually frequent don't work properly, or at all.” Unfortunately, both comments are still true today, and the reason I brought this up was to put things in perspective for the main topic.

Question: If the Opera browser is so compliant with web standards, why do less sites work with it compared to Internet Explorer instead of more? 

Answer: The web itself isn't web standards compliant.

In the early days of the browser wars, circa 1998, there were only two main contenders, Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, roughly controlling half the market share each. The problem was, we were still in the early stages of the web, and both wanted it (the web) to work their own way. Incompatible technologies were introduced such as ActiveX which required more proprietary software and coding to be done by web developers to support different browsers. By the time the dust settled, most websites were coded to be compliant to Internet Explorer instead of the other way around. This issue was compounded by the fact that the internet was really only accessible through a PC. And since Microsoft Windows was the dominant operating system, Internet Explorer became the dominant browser. No amount of antitrust lawsuits would change that, and Microsoft was then painted as as the villain of the episode.

Although the fight for open web standards was continued by the W3C, most web developers didn't see the need to change the way things worked. Even when the browser wars heated up again with Firefox, Safari, and Opera into the fray, things were pretty much status quo...until now.

There has never been a bigger drive by both browser and content developers to adopt open web standards, and the reason is because the global web access model has finally undergone a drastic change. Speeds have increased, bandwidth costs have gone down, and we now have more ways to access the web, from mobile phones to television sets; even home appliances like refrigerators have begun to have some form of online functionality.

Mobile internet access has become the more popular access method in emerging countries where a fixed line and a PC are still a luxury. In South Africa, mobile internet users have already exceeded desktops since 2008. China's People's Daily quoted  a senior analyst of the state owned China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) that China's mobile internet users will exceed PCs by 2012. However, this trend is not only limited to emerging markets. Many of the new reports and studies done between 2008 and 2010 have predicted that by 2015, there would be more mobile internet subscribers than fixed line users worldwide. One such study from Morgan Stanley is a good read on the subject, though I must warn you that it is "comprehensive" - you get to choose between a 424-page report or a 659-slide presentation.

As the internet breaks away from its confinement to a PC terminal, users like you and me are starting to see how proprietary technology severely limits web experience. We expect the web to look and behave the same way regardless of access platform, but today, this isn't the case. Content developers are also beginning to understand the high costs of coding for proprietary technology in a now highly fragmented environment. Not only do they have to worry about software compatibility across browsers and the array of plug-ins required, but hardware and device compatibility as well. Of course, proprietary technology developers are trying to hold on. Adobe Flash is widely regarded to be indispensable, and Microsoft still has vested interest in Silverlight, but with this paradigm shift, the W3C have obtained a win for open web standards. There will be a rough period of transition ahead with the very heavy burden falling on the shoulders of HTML5, but, at least, the ball has started rolling in earnest.

Looking at these trends, it becomes clear why Opera doesn't seem to be too worried about their 2% desktop browser share doesn't it? They're probably thinking, "let everyone else duke it out in the 'browser wars', we'll get busy securing our position where it really counts - in the future of mobile and emerging markets." According to StatCounter Global Stats for the last three months (Aug-Oct 2010), Opera is already holding the largest market share in mobile browsers. There is now a version of Opera on every mobile OS (except the newly launched Windows Phone 7), and by Opera Software's own accounting, the highest hardware compatibility rate of over 4,000 supported devices to date. They have also been working with other technology manufacturers to include Opera in upcoming web enabled devices such as connected TVs and media players. Ever heard of a little known gaming console called the Nintendo Wii and DSi? Opera's there too.

Zachary Chan / Editor

A geek, a gamer, a crazed individual. Zachary has been working in and around the media circuit covering consumer electronics, components and videogame industries for the past 5 years (or so), giving him a unique view on all this...'stuff'.