As children, many of us had the joy of playing with the magical little multi-coloured plastic blocks commonly known as Lego. Almost miraculously, these simple interlocking bricks could be combined into nearly any shape we could imagine. Sadly, nearly everyone at one point or another also ran into the toy’s arch nemesis: the monstrously terrible off-brand bricks.
On the surface they looked just like regular Lego blocks – but as soon as you tried to combine the two the mask came off! They had a slightly different design, and so could not be snapped together with the Lego you already owned. These seemingly friendly toys provided not pleasure, but endless hours of frustration while you tried to jam one onto another before finally giving up, tossing up your arms in a huff, and having a tantrum at your confused but well-meaning parents.
That little story, ladies and gentlemen, sums up precisely what the internet was like before standards came along. To understand a little better, let’s take a quick look back to when the internet was young and dominated by the elephants: Netscape and Internet Explorer. On the surface – much like Lego and its malevolent impersonators – they both seemed to do the same thing: show web pages. It wasn’t until you looked closer that they showed their true colours: web pages made in Netscape wouldn’t work quite right in Internet Explorer and vice-versa. Any attempt to get them to play nicely together was, well, an exercise in futility.
Solving this problem is where Web Standards comes in. Recognizing that having to build everything twice at twice the price was (a) time-consuming, and (b) a bit dull, a clever man by the name of Tim Berners-Lee (whose previous work included inventing a little thing called the World Wide Web) helped to form the “World Wide Web Consortium” or W3C for short.
The W3C maintains a list of freely accessible “standards” for browser makers to follow – think of it as if every off brand Lego manufacturer suddenly had free access to Lego’s patented design. By keeping a free and open place where people can look up how the bits behind the web are supposed to work together, the web browser makers (now Firefox, Chrome, Microsoft, Apple, and a slew of smaller folks) could agree on what a browser is supposed to do. AND, as a bit of icing on the cake, when one group brings forth something cool, it can actually work for everyone.
Nothing is perfect however, and browsers are no exception – as time goes on and the Open Standard becomes more complex not all versions of every browser have managed to get their Legos in order. But the idea is sound. It gives the browser makers a shared “blueprint” which to judge themselves against and – without it, browsers would all be off-brand Lego making the internet feel like constantly trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
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