Standards by Virtue of Shouting Louder

Lots of people seem to be interested in having a common icon to depict web feeds, ever since Internet Explorer decided to use the same icon as Firefox.

A bloke decided to help popularise this new “standard” by recreating the icon in vector form and distributing high-quality versions of it to anyone who'd take them.

Despite having chosen the Microsoft version (the arcs subtend less than 90° in Firefox) as the canonical example on which the images are based (presumably because they gave the biggest example image), I think this is generally a good idea. But (oh, you knew it was coming) it undermines web standards.

Yes, in a roundabout way and yes, unintentionally - they're using the word “standard” all over the place, to describe something they (the icon's advocates) have just decided is a “standard”. It's a standard in the same way that Windows is a standard, IE6 and thus its non-standard interpretation of CSS is a standard, and Microsoft Word document format is a standard.

To coin a phrase, ubiquity does not a standard make.

I was once told to hand in some University work in “standard Microsoft Word format”, which is of course a contradiction in terms. Not only does the actual format used by Word change with each revision of the program, but the format itself is defined by the implementation. This means two things: any bugs in the implementation must stay there for ever and ever amen; and the format is undisclosed - other people can't also implement it. (Yes, they can try, but it'll always be imperfect.)

That last point is very important - only Microsoft can ever make a program that will correctly read Microsoft Word format files - because whatever they say is correct is correct by definition, and they won't tell anyone else what they say is correct. It's a bad idea to accept anything based on authority - the truth is true no matter who says so. (Getting pretty philosophical, aren't I? Yes I am - I said so.) And it's useful to have a definite truth about how to decipher a document, if you want to be able to read that document.

A mediocre analogy is the Bible in the United Kingdom several hundred years ago. It was written in Latin. Only the monks could read Latin; laypeople couldn't (I doubt they could read English). As far as the randomers were concerned, the Bible said whatever the monks said it said. Hence wars and lots of evil and stuff. (I just made that last bit up - I can't prove anything.)

Haphazardly calling a picture a “standard” isn't going to lead to wars. In fact, it's not important at all (why d'you think I'm writing about it?). But it's a bad idea for people to get too used to accepting “standard”s blindly. Of course, they will - people are sheep (in a manner of speaking; incidentally, the reverse is said to be true in Wales).

I'm not having a go at Microsoft just 'cos they're Microsoft (that's so last year) - I'm having a go at them for using closed formats. They have published their new Microsoft Office XML format - which is good - but I can now have a go at them for not using the existing standard, OpenDocument. See? - “standard” means nothing.

It's not important that Microsoft Word is proprietary software (although it'd be nicer if it wasn't) - Microsoft should be allowed to make money by developing and selling software. What's important is that secret information formats (the formats are secret, not the information) don't catch on. Yes, they've caught on already; it should stop. Which is why you shouldn't use Microsoft Word “.doc” format.

'Cos it's evil.

Probably kills kittens too - I haven't looked into it, but it seems likely.