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Multilingual Web should be a priority for India: W3C chief

Leslie D`Monte  |  Cambridge (Us) 

Six months into his new job, Jeffrey Jaffe, Chief Executive Officer of the World Wide Web Consortium has his work cut out

The World Wide Web Consortium or W3C, as it is better known, is where the industry meets to set standards for the Web. And Jeffery Jaffe – an IT industry veteran who held prominent positions at Bell Labs (Lucent Technologies), IBM, and more recently at Novell – as its CEO not only oversees the W3C's largest project in progress ( HTML5 standards group) but is also trying to ensure that the Consortium sharpens its focus on multilingual web standards for countries like India.

“This May, I visited India partly to help launch the new W3C office at a conference. My experience in the conference and in meetings illustrated opportunities that W3C has in India — better communication of our work, greater participation in this work by engineers from India and expanding our technical scope. In India, W3C's office is hosted by the Development for Indic Languages (TDIL). This partnership will strengthen our internationalisation work, part of ensuring that the Web is available to all people.”

“With 22 official languages in India, in addition to a larger number of languages and dialects – making the Web available irrespective of language and literacy levels is a key issue for India and consonant with our values,” said Jaffe.

As the CEO, Jaffe has other important issues that merit his attention. “The Web, as we know, has been around for two decades but has been expanding at a rapid pace. New capabilities are being added periodically. Moreover, data are being accessed from mobiles too. So new standards have to be set,” he explained.

This August, for instance, W3C began discussing a new framework for different fonts on the Web. Web designers have generally relied on a small number of pre-installed typefaces – such as Arial, Verdana and Times New Roman – considered to be ‘Web-Safe’ and thus dependably rendered by various browsers. The large number of other typefaces used in the print media have remained out of reach, due to lack of an interoperable format supported by different browsers and the lack of practical Webfont licensing options. “The Web Open File Format (WOFF 1.0) will change all that,” said Jaffe.

Moreover, open global standards like HTML5 and cascading style sheets (CSS) for Web are starting to be deployed in browsers. HTML5 (like its earlier versions HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.1) is the language that the World Wide Web uses to make content intelligible to internet users. The new standard incorporates features like video playback and drag-and-drop that have been previously dependent on third-party browser plug-ins such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Google Gears. The specification is an ongoing work and is expected to remain so for many years.

“There are many challenges when settling on standards. But parts of HTML5 will be finished and implemented in browsers earlier. You will see a lot of action on this front next year.”

“With these new capabilities, we are faced with new challenges,” said Jaffe, adding, “There's a constant tension between innovation and standardisation. Innovators introduce new technologies on the Web. There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, we encourage this trend. But platforms must be open to the extent possible and where there are not, we have to get the stakeholders to work with the larger interests of internet users rather than restricting their with patents (reference to patent trolls).”

Jaffe, however, declines to comment on the controversial topic of ‘Net Neutrality’ — the principle that no one should interfere with the workings of the internet and, more specifically, that governments and internet service providers (ISPs) should not place any restrictions on the internet’s content or means of accessing that content. “We are a technical standards body. We do not take any sides on policy matters.”

Meanwhile, the W3C, according to Jaffe, is laying emphasis on the ‘Semantic Web’ that comprises a group of methods and technologies to allow machines to interpret the meaning of the information on the World Wide Web. It is a collaborative effort led by W3C with participation from a large number of researchers and industrial partners.

The term was coined by W3C director Tim Berners-Lee. Technologies include the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL) which are aimed at providing a formal description of concepts, terms, and relationships within a given knowledge domain.

However, the Semantic Web as a global vision, remains a work in progress. “For it to become successful, we need more semantic data on the web. The trend will then pick up pace,” Jaffe signed off.

The author, on a sabbatical from Business Standard, is an MIT Knight Science Journalism Research Fellow 2010-11

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First Published: Fri, September 10 2010. 00:42 IST