The prime meridian and Greenwich Mean Time are standards that allow us to determine our position on earth with pinpoint accuracy. These standards can be applied anywhere, at any time, and by anybody; they are universally accessible and understood because everybody has agreed to do it that way. They allow ships to ply the seven seas without bumping into land (usually) and airplanes to fly in friendly skies without bumping into each other (most of the time). And they have opened the world to travel, not necessarily because they are a superior way of doing things, but simply because everyone has agreed to do things the same way. Sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn't it?
The idea of a standard was the principle behind the creation of the World Wide Web: Information should be able to be transmitted to any computer anywhere in the world and displayed pretty much the way the author intended it to look. In the beginning, only one form of HTML existed, and everyone on the Web used it. This situation didn't present any real problem, because almost everyone used Mosaic, the first popular graphics-based browser, and Mosaic stuck to this standard like glue. That, as they say, was then.
Then along came Netscape Navigator, and the first HTML extensions were born. These extensions worked only in Netscape, however, and anyone who didn't use that browser was out of luck. Although the Netscape extensions defied the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), most of themor at least some version of themeventually became part of those very standards. According to some people, the Web has gone downhill ever since.
In coding for this book, I spent a good 35-45 percent of the time trying to get the code to run as smoothly as possible in Internet Explorer 6+, Firefox 1+ (and related Mozilla browsers), Opera 7+, and Safari 1.5+. This situation holds true for most of my Web projects; much of the coding time is spent on cross-browser inconsistencies. If the browsers stuck to the standards, this time would be reduced to almost none.
Your safest bet as a designer, then, is to know the standards of the Web, try to use them as much as possible, and demand that the browser manufacturers use them as well. The Web Standards Project (webstandards.org) is a watchdog group working to make sure that browser manufacturers stick to the standards they helped create (Figure i.1). If you want a better Web, get involved.
Figure i.1. The Web Standards Project: Keeping the Web friendly for all comers.