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Web Standards in Today's China
In early October I was lucky enough to spend some time in China talking to web professionals and students alike about web standards and their current status. It was an interesting couple of weeks that really opened my eyes to what the challenges are when following best practices. What hit me most is that those who support standards are a small and often isolated voice with little or no resources in Chinese to help back up or explain why we need standards and what the benefits are. Here I give a broad overview of what I learnt, challenges and hopefully some ideas of how we can help improve things.
In the main those drivers that we see supporting web standards in some European countries, Australia and the States almost act as the opposite in China. There is no legal requirement to make your website accessible and market forces don't seem to provide a significant enough push. Market forces is an interesting one. I've long held that the business case around web standards is essential even in a country that has a legal requirement for sites to be, for example, made accessible. The reasoning for this is that a site owner may be aware they legally have to make a site accessible but unless they see the direct benefit to them they may not implement accessibility properly and instead merely opt to do the bare minimum that needs to be done to comply with the law.
Currently in China there is a weak business case for web standards for a number of reasons. For one Internet Explorer 6 is still the dominant browser with a 95% market share. In general people are tied into using IE6 as most e-commence sites rely on ActiveX to work. This means that there is a trend towards building web pages that only work in IE6 with other browsers given less focus. This is gradually changing however with the rise of alternative browsers such as Opera, Safari and Firefox and Google Chrome. In fact the arrival of Google Chrome did a lot to raise awareness of alternative browsers in the web design community. Developers I spoke to however were very quick to point out that while they may use an alternative browser to IE when building and testing sites they still made heavy use of IE in day to day browsing simply because so many sites depend on it.
This lack of demand for compliant websites is a problem as without the demand there is little incentive for individual developers as well as companies. This may change however, especially as more and more multinationals outsource and base their development work there. With this increasing hopefully the trickle down theory will hold true and multinationals will have an impact on raising knowledge and awareness. When I asked one developer from Microsoft how he got into web standards he said that it was because the company sent over someone especially to train employees in standards based development. This was great to hear and certainly a key channel for advocating web standards. Opera, a long time champion of web standards (disclaimer, I work for Opera but all opinions are my own) are also playing an active role in advocating web standards. It's at the heart of the development cycle in the Chinese office and the team are also very active in taking part in meet-ups and conferences.
While there is a lack of concrete law to support accessible websites it was interesting to see how the Olympics had affected awareness. Public spaces, streets and buildings were much more accommodating and accessible as a result of the games and had done much to make people more aware. This is a start at least and links in well with the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which China ratified in July of 2008. The Convention is the first international legally-binding convention designed to protect and promote the rights of persons with a disability. As China has ratified the Convention they now have to legally support access to information, recreation, employment and education. As Article 9 states:
"State Parties shall also take appropriate measures to…promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet".
It remains to be seen the direction this will take but at least China is signed up.
Grass roots advocacy
Most exciting of all was the passion and commitment shown by many web professionals I spoke to. There are some influential bloggers in China who are doing great things to promote standards. Notable bloggers include Jun Chen Wu and Xia Nan or Real Lazy as he is known. When talking with Xia he mentioned that back in 2005, when he first started blogging about standards, he was getting around 1000 hits per day. This seemed to prove that there was a desire for people to learn more or, even if they were not researching for information about standards directly, they are landing on his site which was able to introduce standards.
This seemed to make sense as all the developers I spoke to said they they were more or less self taught. As with many countries web development and standards aren't always covered in university courses so designers and developers have to self teach. One big drawback here however is the lack of resources in Chinese. This is compounded by the fact that while some ebooks exist they can be too expensive to buy for many people.
Probably most exciting while I was there however was the opportunity to take part in the first ever Web Standards Cafe in Beijing sponsored by Opera. The subject was Web Standards and Web 2.0 and focused largely on how we can support web standards in China. Combining grass roots advocacy such as this with BarCamps I think is a positive way forward.
Supporting web standards in China
There a few things that we can start doing now to help promote web standards and accessible web design in China. It may seem like a daunting task but if this is tackled bit by bit there is no reason why standards can't become more popular. As the old Chinese saying goes "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand". It's not long ago that in Europe, Australia and the States that we were fighting for basic adherence of web standards, it's worth while to look back and learn from that experience. For now I see the following as being instrumental to enabling web standards.
So if you are a blogger, a developer, someone in a position to translate or communicate knowledge within your organisation then share what you have. As I mentioned above please do leave a comment if you have any suggestions, thought or insights. I'd also like to expand on the list of resources below so if you have any then post links and I will update the list.
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