The World Wide West of Web editing

Fidus Writer was represented at the W3C Extensible Web Summit in Berlin on September 11, 2014.  This is one of several half-formal meetings around the main web standardization body and with just 56 participants we could discuss directly with those who make web standards that affect the online experience of the 2.8 Billion people who use the internet.

Lightning talks gave us a fast initial idea about various projects in and around the W3C.

Lightning talks gave us a fast initial idea about various projects in and around the W3C.

Although we are very interested in what is happening and follow the corresponding email lists, the physical meetings of standardization bodies that happen all around the world every few weeks are not something that developers usually get involved in. So why did we go?

Two reasons that made us decide to go:

Our main cause for headache during our two years with Fidus Writer has been how text editing is done in the browser (like for example in the comment section below). It is one of those areas where there is no standard, and all the major browsers just imitate the behavior of Internet Explorer. Possibly because there is no standard, the browser makers have stopped developing this area  some 5-8 years ago. It’s riddled with bugs, and even though we have created many bug reports with Safari, Firefox and Chrome, and talked to them about this many times, the answer we most frequently receive is that first there has to be a standard to define correct behavior and only then can they go about fixing the current behavior to match it.

The other reason is that Robin Berjon, the W3C person who has been working on completing the HTML5 standard, started an initiative to include web developers more in the process of creating specifications. After all, it’s web developers who are going to make use of the features once they are there.  As part of this initiative, he set up an emaillist to try to tackle the area of text editing, specifically with the aim to invite editor developers to participate in discussing this. Some people from Microsoft and Google have been given the task of working in this area, so there is a lot more activity than there has been at any other time during the past two years. Ben Peters of Microsoft is one of the two editors behind two documents that will hopefully turn into full-blown standards some day. As you can see in the list of use cases, Fidus Writer has contributed quite a bit with examples of what needs to be possible in such an editor.

Any results?

Session planning -- lots of interest in the session on text editing

Session planning — lots of interest in the session on text editing

Altogether we were five editor developers: Frederico Knabben and Piotr Koszuliński of CKeditor, Petro Salema and Clemens Prerovsky of Aloha editor, and Johannes Wilm of Fidus Writer. Just about everyone else was connected to either W3C or one of the browser makers.  At times we developers appeared like lumberjacks at a board meeting of a timber company, but overall I think and hope we were taken seriously.

In the starting session, Frederico Knabben that even though there are only a handful of general purpose editors for comments, writing emails and such on the web (Fidus Writer is not one of them), almost all the user content is created by one of them. One of the sessions was made to be about editing, and maybe that was what made that surprisingly many of the others were participating. The main controversy among us was not so much one of having very different opinions, but rather one of strategy:

Should we ask for a standard that defines all possible behavior of an editor? That would likely be the solution that would be the cleanest for us, but what is the likelihood that it will be implemented in the browsers? Or should we just ask for a new way of editing that just has some minimal features but that actually works without too many bugs? This would mean more work for us and likely more differences in how editors work for the user, but possibly a higher likelihood that it will be implemented in browsers and be implemented faster(within three years or so).

In the end we seemed to agree on asking for them to first please define something minimal that actually works and can be implemented fast, and after that to go ahead and define default behavior of how an editor should behave in all types of situations.


The three web editors present at the web summit: Aloha's Clemens Prerovsky, CKeditors Frederico Knabben and Johannes Wilm of Fidus Writr. Photo: Petro Salema

The three web editors present at the web summit: Aloha’s Clemens Prerovsky, CKeditors Frederico Knabben and Johannes Wilm of Fidus Writr. Photo: Petro Salema

Our participation was not uncontroversial. One participant mentioned that developers are likely to push for things that make their own life easier in the short term,  whereas users and standardization people have more of a grand vision of how things should ideally be in the long term. And true enough: Their goal seems to be to have a  working HTML5 standard by 2024, whereas developers oftentimes have projects that last only a month or two. If one is to get involved in this kind of thing as a developer, the developer likely will have to do the same work twice: first find a solution that works with current browsers, and then additionally think of a way that this should ideally be done which then may come to work five years later.

Nevertheless, it was certainly an interesting experience, also to understand how quite an important part of today’s technology is organized. To what degree they will listen to our suggestions remains to be seen.

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