Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee presents his vision of the web's future at the 15th International World Wide Web Conference in Edinburgh today. At a press conference yesterday, he acknowledged that accessibility is failing the "essential aspect" he described back in 1997 when announcing the launch of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (or WAI, pronounced 'way').
"That is a concern," he said of today's generally poor standard of web accessibility, when OUT-LAW asked for his opinion. Berners-Lee, who has served as W3C's Director since it was founded in 1994, pointed out that his WAI team is working hard on a new set of guidelines to address accessibility. Version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, has been long awaited and the working draft is near completion: a 'last call' for public comment closes on 31st May.
Berners-Lee is not suggesting that WCAG 2.0 will present a quick-fix for web accessibility; but it should answer some of the criticisms of the current version.
One such criticism is that WCAG 1.0 is difficult to apply to technological developments on the web. Berners-Lee seemed to understand this concern. "I was having a conversation with someone the other day about video blogging," he said. "Does a video blogger need captioning? It's not easy to do."
So he suggested a novel approach "What about community captioning? The video blogger posts his blog – and the web community provides the captions that help others."
This solution evokes the concept of Web 2.0, a collective term for services that let people collaborate and share information online.
The term Web 2.0 has also been used as a synonym for the Semantic Web – something that Berners-Lee has been writing about for many years. His enthusiasm for the Semantic Web was obvious at yesterday's press conference – and again, he sees potential in it for web accessibility.
He predicted great things for the Semantic Web in his 1999 book Weaving the Web. It describes an evolution in which machines become capable of analysing all the data on the web: the content, links and transactions between people and computers. "A 'Semantic Web,' which should make this possible, has yet to emerge," he wrote, "but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machine, leaving humans to provide the inspiration and intuition."
This week's four-day conference is packed with talks and debates on the Semantic Web by academics and industry experts from around the world, addressing 1,500 delegates. Berners-Lee's vision is becoming a business case.
He talked yesterday of websites "marshalling the community" to improve accessibility. He continued: "The Semantic Web lets you build a browser that is optimised for a particular disability." A browser of the future would understand the raw data it is dealing with, rather than just displaying it. It would know how to make it accessible. Unfortunately, time did not allow him to elaborate.
When OUT-LAW asked whether he thinks further regulation is necessary to improve accessibility, Berners-Lee declined to take sides. Diplomatically, he pointed out that regulation is not his field of expertise. "What I would say is that everyone should reference the same guidelines," he said.
His point is that W3C has written the de facto standard; but governments and non-governmental organisations have seen fit to write their own versions. "You can't design a site and try to make it compete with 152 different sets of guidelines from 152 different states," he said. "Keeping the standards homogenous is really important."
In short, everyone should follow WCAG.
Event: Website Accessibility 2006
Edinburgh, 13th June
OUT-LAW has teamed up with Parallel 56 and User Vision to organise a national conference on best-practice public sector website accessibility. Hear from expert speakers on PAS 78, WCAG 2.0 and more.
Full details at Parallel 56's website