An Outsider's Guide to the W3C - FAQ

Version 1.02 - Last Modified 14 March 2000. All comments and suggestions are welcome. Thanks so far to John Simpson, Janet Daly, Dan Brickley, Ann Navarro, Victor Lombardi, Tim Bray, Ken Sall, Kynn Bartlett, and David Brownell for comments. These comments do not, of course, constitute endorsement or approval. This FAQ was previously titled a "civilian's" guide, but that generated some confusion.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the home of an enormous amount of World Wide Web (WWW) technology development. Its director, Tim Berners-Lee, is widely acclaimed as the inventor of the Web, and continues to exert considerable influence on the development of this key Internet technology through the W3C. While the W3C is an important player in the creation and management of Web standards, most Web developers hear of the W3C's output without participating in its creation.

The W3C provides only limited opportunities for participation by non-members (though it does invite 'experts' to participate). While the results of its work are open to the public, including periodic drafts, the discussions that generate that material are closed to non-members. This document provides an outsider's guide to the W3C, explaining its processes and its output from the perspective of a non-member, and identifying areas where non-members can participate.

What is the W3C?

The W3C is a consortium, a gathering place where organizations can meet and work together without the appearance of antitrust problems. The W3C is actually not a legal entity. It is supported by its host institutions and the participation of its members. The W3C has no responsibility except to its members, and even members have limited rights within the process.

What does the W3C do?

The W3C primarily creates recommendations for the Web, which are effectively standards documents. Technically speaking, the W3C does not create 'standards' - this is the domain of ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. The W3C does not enforce its recommendations on its members. A separate organization, the Web Standards Project, has been formed by Web developers to encourage browser vendors to stick to the W3C recommendations, but has no affiliation with the W3C. The W3C is not charged with developing standards for the Internet in general; this is more the role of the Internet Engineering Task Force, a separate organization with which the W3C cooperates on certain projects. The W3C describes the coordination and separation between itself and the IETF, as well as partnerships with other organizations in its process document.

The W3C also hosts conferences and symposia.

How do I find W3C projects?

The main place to look for public information is the right-hand side of the main W3C page. Some projects are more deeply buried. XLink, XPath, and XPointer are all parts of the XML project, but aren't listed on the top W3C page. The W3C also maintains a list of its activity statements, less technical introductions to the work its various projects are performing. If all else fails, the technical reports page has a complete list of documents available that can help you find your way.

What kinds of document does the W3C produce?

There are several kinds of documents available from the W3C:

There are other documents available in the public areas of the W3C site. Many of the Working Groups have their own areas and activity statements, and post information about their work on a somewhat regular basis. The W3C also produces Open Source software as a testbed for its development work.

Who is the W3C?

The W3C is a member-supported consortium including both software vendors and a variety of consumers. It is hosted by three institutions: Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory of Computer Science (MIT/LCS) in the United States, Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA) in France, and Keio University in Japan.

The members are a fairly diverse group of companies and organizations. The usual suspects (Microsoft, AOL, Sun Microsystems, and IBM) participate, as do large customers (like Boeing, Electricité de France, and the United States Defense Information Systems Agency), educational institutions and organizations (University of Edinburgh HCRC Language Technology Group, GMD National Research Center for Information Technology, OCLC, and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and the HTML Writers' Guild. Membership allows organizations and their employees to participate on W3C projects and gives them access to internal W3C discussions.

Why would I want to participate?

The W3C is pretty much the flag-bearer for the Web. The W3C's member companies take the W3C seriously (though the extent varies among members), as does the press. The Web Standards Project, a completely separate organization, doesn't create its own standards - it just encourages companies, including W3C members, to implement key W3C standards completely.

Because the W3C has significant credibility, it's important to be aware of and participate in its work if you want to have an impact on Web standards.

Should I (or my company) join the W3C?

W3C membership costs money. Do you have US$5000/year, and can you make a three-year commitment? Or, if your organization or its parent has gross annual revenues over US$50 million, do you have $50,000? If your organization's projects are centered on or highly dependent on W3C activity, joining the W3C probably makes sense. If you can't find that amount of funding, you're out of luck, unless you can get in as an invited expert. There are no lower-priced 'individual memberships', though individuals can get in at the affiliate (US$5000/year) price.

Joining will get you access to Member Areas and other benefits as well. Basically, you'll have a seat at the table, advance knowledge of what's coming out, and access to the discussions that formed the basis for standards. Knowing why a standard was written a particular way may help you plan for future versions more effectively than your competitors. This may be worth much more to your organization than US$5000 (or even US$50,000).

I'm an open-source developer. Can that get me in the door?

While the W3C welcomes implementations of their recommendations, they don't reduce the price of membership simply because you aren't getting paid for your software. This can make your projects more difficult - it's hard to predict how quickly (or sometimes, even if) the W3C will finish a project, and your implementation won't have the benefit of inside knowledge of upcoming development that W3C members may have.

If your project strikes those inside the W3C as being important or ground-breaking enough, you may be invited to participate as an invited expert. You'll have to sign some intellectual property agreements, but you won't have to pay a fee.

What role can I play without becoming a W3C member?

You can comment on public drafts, and participate in the public W3C mailing lists. Archives of the public mailing lists are open to the public, so you can read up on current discussions before jumping in. Many working drafts and proposed recommendations, though not all, provide an address to which you can send comments on that document.

If you feel strongly about an issue, you can start discussion outside of the W3C and generate your own drafts and documents. Some public mailing lists are open to such discussion, and it is possible to submit your documents to the W3C as a Note if you can find a sympathetic member to claim your proposal. Document Description Markup Language began as such a project and was eventually submitted to the W3C.

If you start such a project, be prepared: 'rogue' projects that conflict directly with W3C activities are likely to be shunned by those involved with the W3C. Be certain that your project isn't treading on another project, and don't try to claim any 'legitimacy' for your 'standard'. Of course, there aren't really any rules for such work, but these steps may help you get the W3C (or other bodies) to take your work seriously if and when you're ready.

If your project is outside the scope of the W3C - say you're creating an industry-specific XML vocabulary - be sure to coordinate it with others who might be interested and publicize it as widely as possible to avoid overlap with other projects. Repository sites like OASIS's, RosettaNet,, and offer support and information about such projects.

If your project is really about Internet infrastructure, look into the IETF for possible synergy. The IETF runs on an open consensus-based process - anyone may participate or make submissions. Also, for the XML-oriented, OASIS membership isn't free, but OASIS does offer a lower-cost individual membership option.

You may also choose to run your development on its own site, without affiliating it with a particular standards body. The XML-RPC effort is an example of such an independent process. Companies, individuals, and other orgnizations can all operate in this way. Processes vary from completely open to completely closed.

Hmm... my employer actually is a member. How can I participate?

You'll have to ask within your organization. Even members of the W3C don't necessarily want their employees spending all their time pondering standards rather than doing their job. Different organizations (and even areas within organizations) have different policies. A good place to start is by finding your organization's W3C Advisory Committee representative. The W3C keeps that list private, so you'll have to ask within your organization.

I just want to translate a W3C document to a different language...

You don't need to be a W3C member to translate W3C Recommendations. However, the W3C does have some rules with which you'll need to comply. In all cases, the English version of a Recommendation at the W3C is the 'official' version.

The W3C doesn't discuss translating drafts or notes on their site.

How does the W3C operate internally, anyway?

The W3C has a full-blown Process Document that explains how it operates. The short version is:

Final decision-making power rests with the Director, who relies on the consensus of members to create documents. The Director, in consultation with the membership, has the power to set up Activities and working groups within them to address new areas, and these working groups do most of the standards development. (The current director invented the World Wide Web, but expecting him to continue inventing it all by himself is asking a lot.)

Working groups (WGs) do most of the standards development, producing documents on a regular basis. Working groups are given charters for the work they are to do, and usually publish activity statements as well. In some fields, there is one working group for a given activity, while in others there are many. The W3C process document suggests that Working Groups be kept small - fewer than 15 members - but rumors of larger groups persist. The XML Activity statement is especially complex, identifying multiple working groups and the coordination of their activities.

Working groups have publicly identified chairs, though their membership typically remains anonymous. (They can identify themselves as members, but their names are not listed on the public site.) All members of working groups are representatives of W3C members, W3C staff, or invited experts. Working Groups produce Working Drafts, and eventually (possibly) Proposed Recommendations and (with the approval of the Director) Recommendations.

Working groups conduct most of their discussions by email, though there are face-to-face meetings and telephone calls as well. All internal correspondence is archived in member-only areas, giving W3C members a glimpse of what went into a specification as well as the drafts and recommendation.

When a Working Group feels that its work on a document is reaching completion, they can publish the document as a 'Last Call' Working Draft to announce their progress. After any 'Last Call' revisions, the document is submitted to the Director for approval to become a Candidate Recommendation. After a period of collecting implementation feedback, the Working Group may submit it (possibly with revisions) to the Director for approval to become a Proposed Recommendation. If the Director approves this, it is published and W3C members may begin balloting. Editors may reply to ballot comments in this period, and sometimes changes can still be made before the final publication of the document as a W3C Recommendation, if it receives the Director's approval. (If the Director doesn't approve the document, it may go back to the working group as a working draft or be abandoned.)

Interest Groups work alongside the WGs. Unlike Working Groups, they aren't chartered to create particular documents. Instead, they evaluate and explore technology, possibly in conjunction with (or leading to the development of) Working Groups.

On a separate track, members can contribute proposals to the W3C through a submissions process, the results of which are published as Notes. (The W3C activities also occasionally publish Notes.) While a member organization is waiting for W3C acceptance of the submission, a quiet period is required. Only when the W3C has accepted a submission can the member organization announce the submission or describe the proposal as a Note. Acceptance of a Note by the W3C gives it no official standing - Notes are not standards, whatever a press release might imply. Member submissions may be used as foundations for further development, spurring additional W3C activity, but they have no 'official' standing as W3C output.

This process, like the Process Document underlying it, is subject to change.

Copyright 1999 by Simon St.Laurent.