[access-uk] De facto standard: a helpful term in web accessibility? [was: Firefox, Internet Explorer, and MSAA]

  • From: Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis <bhawkeslewis@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: access-uk@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 18 Aug 2007 22:20:04 +0100

Léonie Watson wrote:

I suspect you may be confusing a standard, with a defacto standard.
The two are not the same.

I'm starting a new thread, as the previous thread was really supposed to spark discussion of actual bugs not semantics.

Thank you for the links, but I'm actually familiar to the the application of the term "de facto standard" to what Internet Explorer does. I just think it's a thoroughly confusing phrase in this context. What does the term "de facto standard" imply in this case that a more straightforward phrase like "behaviour of the most popular browser" would not, and are those additional connotations accurate or not? Does the term help us to think clearly? The fact that people often end up referring interlocutors to resources that explain the difference between de facto standards and other standards does not produce confidence in the phrase's clarity. On balance, I think it's counterproductive to backport ever more figurative and loose uses of the word "standard" into a technical sphere like software engineering.

My quarrel with the term is not so much that I think standards should be blessed by standards organizations, but that:

1. I think the term glosses over the 15% of people who don't use Explorer. I don't really think 85% is enough to make something de facto. If a warlord controls only 85% of a country, are they its de facto government or it disputed territory? You could argue it one way or another: it's not a "clear case".

2. I think the term implies that Explorer's behaviour is trivial to mimick, but it isn't. When you are talking about multiple applications implementing the same standard, whether law, or certification, or popularity makes it desirable to implement the standard isn't crucial, I think you need to be talking about a specification or verbalizable convention against which you can objectively measure implementations, not some particular piece of software, especially not a complex black box like Internet Explorer.

3. I think the term may suggest that Internet Explorer's behaviour is optimal for or even usable by other implementations and that copying it would ensure accessibility and interoperability (that was very much how Alistair was using it). In many situations, popularity can be a mark of quality. Because of distortions in the browser market (most obviously, Internet Explorer being bundled with the operating system installed on most personal computers), the most commonly used solutions are not necessarily the best. Because Internet Explorer fails to expose all features it does support to MSAA, because Firefox has feature support that Internet Explorer does not, and because Firefox supports more platforms than Internet Explorer, simply copying Internet Explorer's MSAA exposure, rather than enhancing and extending it, would reduce Firefox's accessibility and interoperability. Likewise, because there is much more to how screen readers interact with Explorer than its use of MSAA, exactly copying it would not even provide automatic interoperability with screen readers that can be used with Explorer.

Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis
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