W3C and the Web Community

April 10, 2000

Ian Jacobs

Table of Contents

How Ideas Become Specifications
How Specifications Become Recommendations
Participation in a W3C Working Group
Participation outside of a W3C Working Group
Acceptance of a Specification
W3C Organization

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded in 1994 so that organizations and individuals interested in developing the Web would have a place to promote and listen to ideas, hammer out consensus on interoperable solutions, and create high-quality technical specifications as a stable foundation for the Web. W3C's process has been designed so that developers, content providers and users, W3C Members and the public, and industry and government can all contribute to and benefit from the W3C forum. Only by serving the entire Web community can W3C claim to lead the Web to its full potential. "I devote my career to the XML development community," says Dan Connolly, the XML Activity Lead at W3C. "I occasionally get recruited to join this or that start-up as CTO, but it's more important to me today to work directly with the open standards XML community.

W3C's growth in just over five years (over 400 Members, 22 Recommendations, 60 full-time staff, over 20 Activities) shows that the international community considers W3C the place to go to develop fundamental Web technologies. Demand for the W3C forum is high today, but as soon as W3C stops meeting expectations, or the Web itself makes the need for this forum obsolete, we can all go home. Like everyone in the industry, W3C struggles to keep pace with rapid changes to Web markets, technology, and society. W3C must take these factors into account while building a sturdy and flexible foundation for the Web at the same time. Our success in this project depends largely on community trust and participation, including review of specifications, implementations, translations, and promotion. We invite you participate in W3C's mission and explain below how you can.

How Ideas Become Specifications

The W3C process (described in the Process Document) strives to ensure consensus among audiences that increase in size at each stage of the process. Proposals that trigger this process often come from these sources:

  • The W3C Team tracks developments in Web technologies and suggests directions to the Membership. The Team works full-time to coordinate W3C Activities, a service that distinguishes W3C from some other standards bodies such as the IETF and OASIS.
  • Workshops evaluate and foster interest in a particular topic and can lead to the creation of a new Working Group or Activity. For example, the 1998 The Query Languages Workshop led to work on XML queries.
  • Members can request publication of ideas at the W3C Web site. This is called the Member Submission process. One or more Member organizations send to the Team a "Submission Request" that includes a technical report or other material. The Team evaluates the submitted material and, if it is not out of scope for W3C or considered harmful to the Web, the material is published as a W3C Note along with a comment from the Team, and the request is added to the list of acknowledged Submission requests. Acknowledgment of a Submission request does not imply endorsement of the submitted material, or that W3C will do anything else with the submitted material. The material has not been reviewed by the Members, so acknowledgment does not imply consensus within W3C. A Working Group may use submitted material as part of its work, but this is not a requirement.

Once there is momentum behind an idea or area of technology, the Members are asked whether W3C should dedicate resources to it. A new Activity Proposal is sent to the Membership for review and the proposal is adopted when the review indicates consensus. Activity Proposals describe how work in the Activity will be carried out by and divided among Working Groups, Interest Groups, and Coordination Groups. For instance, work in the XML Activity is carried out by four Working Groups (Core, Schema, Linking, and Query), three Interest Groups (Plenary, Schema, Linking) and one Coordination Group. To help organize related Activities, W3C groups them into four Domains: Architecture, Technology and Society, User Interface, and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The XML Activity is part of the Architecture Domain, which also includes work on HTTP, Television and the Web, and Jigsaw (W3C's Web server).

Each Working Group expresses in its charter what piece of the Activity it agrees to develop. A charter must be reviewed by the Members (e.g., in an Activity Proposal) before a group can begin its work. A charter includes information about the nature, scope, goals, criteria for success, and deliverables of the Working Group. Deliverables might include, for example, a requirements document, one or more specifications (some of which are meant to become Recommendations), test suites, plans for implementation tracking, etc. Each Working Group is led by a Chair (or two co-Chairs on occasion) and includes at least one person from the Team (the Team contact) whose role is to (1) ensure that the Working Group functions within the W3C process, (2) monitor the group's progress and keep the Team aware of obstacles or successes, (3) help coordinate communication with other W3C groups, and (4) help with publications, press releases, meeting arrangements, etc.

How Specifications Become Recommendations

Just as in other standards organizations, W3C specifications undergo a lengthy formal process of review, revision, and refinement (called the "Recommendation track" at W3C) to build consensus. Documents on the Recommendation track advance from Working Draft to Candidate Recommendation (for implementation experience) to Proposed Recommendation (for Member review) and finally to Recommendation. Passage from one stage to the next requires consensus within a particular reviewing community. This includes industry, the developer community, the W3C Membership, and the other standards bodies and consortia with whom W3C coordinates its efforts.

To ensure that the public can track the development of a specification, Working Groups are required by the W3C process to make available a public draft at least every three months. More importantly, W3C asks for public comment at several critical points:

  • When the Working Group publishes the first public draft.
  • When the Working Group considers that it has met the requirements of its charter ("we're done"). At this point it solicits technical comments by issuing a "Last Call" to the Web community. The Working Group uses these comments to judge whether there is consensus about the specification. The Working Group must document any opposing viewpoints (from the public or anyone else) that it chooses to override in order to move forward. These objections are weighed alongside other criteria as part of the Recommendation track process. Working Groups are expected to respond publicly to all reasonable public comments made about a specification.
  • When the Working Group issues a Candidate Recommendation.

Please note that W3C specifications are created by Working Groups and proposed to the Members for adoption as a Recommendation. W3C does not create standards in the other direction; it does not put the Recommendation stamp on materials that come directly from its Members.

W3C has one other type of technical report, called a Note. A Note is not part of the Recommendation track and has no special meaning other than W3C has chosen to make some information available to the public. Each Note explains why it was published, what review process if any it has undergone, whether there is consensus among the authors, and other important status information. W3C uses Notes for a variety of reasons, including making available information that is part of an acknowledged Submission request.

Participation in a W3C Working Group

Table of Contents

How Ideas Become Specifications
How Specifications Become Recommendations
Participation in a W3C Working Group
Participation outside of a W3C Working Group
Acceptance of a Specification
W3C Organization

To participate directly in the creation of a specification, you have to join the Working Group responsible for it. Participation requires a serious commitment: Working Groups generally meet once a week for a teleconference and several times a year for face-to-face meetings. It takes a long time and a lot of effort for a document to become a W3C Recommendation.

Some Working Groups are only open for participation by Member employees, the Team, and invited experts (people invited by the Chair to participate on a regular or short-term basis). For these groups, meeting minutes, internal drafts, implementation schedules, and other information is confidential to Members. Some Working Groups consider that it's easier to get work done outside of public scrutiny while others feel strongly that work must be conducted in a public forum; the Working Group charter specifies whether a group's proceedings are public. Opinions differ, even within W3C, about how much work should be carried on "behind closed doors." One advantage of offering a confidential forum to Members is that they may share sensitive information they would not make known publicly, and this can improve the quality of a specification and the long-term chances for consensus. However, at the end of the day W3C must ensure consensus within the community as a whole, so Working Groups cannot afford to work too long without public review, participation, and criticism.

If you are an employee of a Member organization and wish to join a Working Group, please refer to the Working Group's home page, contact your Advisory Committee Representative, or contact W3C.

If your organization does not wish to join W3C, you may join as an individual at the Affiliate Member level (for $5000 US annually). This may seem like an expensive way to participate, but the cost of Membership is generally much less than the cost of participation when you consider the amount of time you are expected to commit to the Working Group, the cost of travel, the cost of telephone conferences, etc.

You may also apply for one of the available positions on the W3C Team. Please consult the Web site for information about employment opportunities at W3C.

Participation outside of a W3C Working Group

Even if you are not a Working Group participant, you are encouraged to contribute to W3C specifications. Comments on public specifications are very important to Working Groups so that they know they are representing the needs of the community. W3C hosts public mailing lists for comments on XML specifications and other discussions. These mailing lists (for XML schemas, XML query language, XML linking, etc.) are described on and linked from the XML Activity home page. W3C considers the xml-dev list (xml-dev archive) the premier forum for discussing XML development.

You can also meet and discuss with W3C Working Group participants by attending Workshops held by W3C or conferences where W3C is involved. For instance, W3C sponsors the International World Wide Web Conference each year and has a permanent track at the conference.

Acceptance of a Specification

During and after the Recommendation track, W3C promotes implementation and promotion of its specifications in a number of ways:

  • The Team gives talks, tracks implementations, publishes supporting documents, produces validators and test suites, etc.
  • W3C develops its own open source software, which includes Amaya, an HTML editor/browser, the Jigsaw Web server, Tidy, a markup language cleanup utility, and the libwww protocol library.
  • W3C recently added the Candidate Recommendation stage to the Recommendation track so that a Working Group can gather implementation experience before the specification becomes a Recommendation. Early implementation of new technology in open source makes a huge difference to the market and to the credibility of the technology.
  • W3C has begun producing more modular specifications.
  • W3C is considering starting Quality Control Activity for additional support of its specifications.

In addition to these measures, since W3C has no legal authority to enforce conformance, it relies heavily on developers, the market, end users, and the press to help ensure that specifications are implemented correctly. As a developer or user, you can help W3C deploy specifications in a number of ways:

  • You can tell vendors that standards are important to you. One frequent explanation given by vendors for why they don't implement standards is that there isn't enough customer demand.
  • You can contribute to W3C's open source software or develop your own.
  • You can translate a specification. W3C encourages translations and will link to those brought to our attention. If you wish to sign up as a translator (and coordinate your efforts with others), find out what translations have been done, or what copyright issues are involved, please refer to information about translations at W3C.

W3C Organization

Who's who at W3C? As an organization, W3C benefits from its diverse parts:

The Members
W3C Members send people to participate in Working Groups and finance the Consortium through dues. (W3C is also financed to a lesser extent by public funds.) Members have certain benefits, including a seat on the Advisory Committee, access to Member-confidential information, the right to use the Member logo, and access to W3C news services. Any organization may become a Member of W3C. All Members have the same rights and responsibilities, but "Full Members" pay more ($50,000 US per year) than "Affiliate Members" ($5000 US per year). Please refer to details about how to join W3C.
The Advisory Committee (AC)
Each Member organization is represented on the "Advisory Committee" by one person of that organization. The Advisory Committee's roles are described in the Process Document and include review of proposed Activities and proposed Recommendations. The Advisory Committee meets face-to-face twice a year.
The Team
The W3C Team coordinates the work that is carried out by the various Activities and other work such as communications work, managing the Web site and publications, organizing Workshops, etc. The Team consists of the W3C Director (currently Tim Berners-Lee) the Chairman (currently Jean-François Abramatic) and the full-time staff who work all over the world. The Chairman manages the general operation of the Consortium, chairs Advisory Committee and Advisory Board meetings, oversees the development of the W3C international structure (e.g., the role of Hosts, the creation of W3C Offices, etc.), coordinates liaisons with other standards bodies, and addresses legal and policy issues. The Director is the lead architect for the technologies developed at the Consortium. The Director is also the "monitor of consensus" for reviews conducted by the Advisory Committee. For example, the Director's decision to make a specification a Recommendation reflects consensus among the Working Group, the Team, the Web community, and the Advisory Committee. The Director does not make decisions without consensus from the community -- this would be contrary to W3C's mission and to its own interests in promoting interoperability.
The Advisory Board (AB)
Created in March 1998 to provide guidance on strategy, management, legal matters, process issues, and conflict resolution, the Advisory Board ensures that W3C remains responsive to the needs of the Members as well as to entities outside of W3C (notably other standards bodies). The Advisory Board is not a board of directors that determines W3C's Activities and direction; the Members and Team exercise this role.
The Hosts
W3C is hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science [MIT/LCS] in the United States; the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique [INRIA] in Europe; and the Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus in Japan. Many of the more than fifty researchers and engineers that make up the W3C Team work at these host locations. W3C is not a legal entity, so Members enter into a contractual relationship with the three hosts when they join W3C.
The Offices
The W3C Offices are local points of contact in a number of countries that help ensure that W3C and its specifications are known in those countries. The Offices work with their regional Web community to promote participation in W3C Working Groups. This geographical broadening of W3C's base will help extend the Web more consistently over the globe. Please refer to the list of Offices, available on the Web.

For more information

The W3C home page is Much of the information in this article has been adapted from the publicly available W3C Process Document and general information about W3C available on the Web. For a one-page summary about W3C, refer to "W3C in Seven Points."

At the W3C Web site, you will find more information about how to contact W3C.


Dan Connolly and Janet Daly provided essential direction to this article.

The author would also like to recognize the efforts made by Simon St. Laurent to communicate information about W3C in his Outsider's Guide to W3C - FAQ.