Meet the “fairy godmother of the web,” Molly Holzschlag, who will give the opening keynote address at the John Slatin AccessU 2022 conference on May 9.
Holzschlag earned her moniker by becoming one the most influential advocates of standards to ensure an accessible, open web that all can use. And she has carried that banner since the web’s beginning, including the time she went toe-to-toe with Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Here’s the story she tells about that famous encounter:
Back in 2007?, Holzschlag walked into the meeting room to wait for Gates to lead a group discussion on the future of the web. She made sure to choose the middle seat, knowing she’d be directly across from Gates..
“They bring in Gates and he sits down and he's very uncomfortable,” she said.
Why was Gates uncomfortable? Sit tight for a little internet history lesson.
In 1989, Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the web to be a freely accessible global information system. He wanted web standards to ensure his creation would remain open and available to all.
The upkeep and advancement of accessibility standards, and the principles of inclusivity they stood for, spurred the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which generated the standards. Later, the Web Standards Project (WaSP) was created to help put them in place.
Holzschlag, then a well-known expert in web design and development, got involved with WaSP shortly after its creation to help teach the more technical aspects of the standards to developers. That would kick-start her long open-web advocacy career.
“People would have a choice based on not the standards, not the way the page displayed, but the user interface, the features,” Holzschlag said. “Does it have tabs? Does it have a reading panel? Does it have a projection mode? Things like that. That is where you compete. If you're building cars, you can't leave out the brakes. It's not an opt-in technology. You need brakes. End of story.”
But not everyone abided by the standards. In fact, most tech and web design companies operated in the “move fast and break things” mentality that still permeates the culture. And Microsoft dominated the browser market, jeopardizing the notion that the web be free and open to all. In 1998, Internet Explorer 6 held 98% of web users, leading one executive to infamously declare that Microsoft had “won the web.”
“It's not to be owned,” Holzschalg said. “It's decentralized. It's a non-multi-stakeholder. In other words, by design, no one person, government, place, corporation, or anybody owns the web… So this pissed me off to no end.”
Change was needed, but the companies with the most market shares weren’t interested in moving fast. On top of that, poor browser function was a big problem. Holzschlag’s point of focus was the implementation of CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, which basically tells the HTML how to present itself through font, colors, spacing, so that pages stay clean and consistent.
HTML browsers now needed to be rebuilt to support CSS, but Microsoft, with its huge market share, had no incentive to put in that work. So with Holzschalg at the helm, a coalition of 40 developers advocated for CSS implementation, not to their fellow developers and designers, but to the project managers and high-level decision makers. The group grew, attracting more developers, traction in the media, and support from within Microsoft.
“The next thing I know … I get an invitation and it says, ‘You’re invited to come and spend a day at Microsoft,’” she said. “And at the end of the day, we will get an audience with his high honor, Bill Gates.”
The day came and Holzschalg found herself one of two women (not exactly a rare occurrence) in a room full of turn-of-the-century tech hotshots who were asking questions like what music Gates put on his Zune (“Bill looked bored,” Holzschalg said). Finally, it was her turn to ask Gates a question. She paused before going to bat for all the people fighting for an open and free web.
“Here I am three feet across the table, eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe with a captain of industry who has once and has been more than once the (world’s) wealthiest man …,” Holzschalg said. “There’s a pause and I say, ‘What do you say to the skeptics who are saying you are not committed to web standards, that Microsoft wants to ‘own the web?’ The entire room goes silent.”
“I don’t know,” Gates replies. “Might be kind of nice to own the web.”
“The whole room just erupts,” Holzschlag said. “He said it! He just said it.”
Holzschlag didn’t back down and Gates eventually gave into the line of questioning.
“I broke him down. And it was really funny; we're fighting, but you don't necessarily know we're fighting because his humor was great. We had a parlay,” she said. “It was really fun, but it was scary. I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, if I screw this up, this is like a world of pain for the world of developers.’”
She didn’t screw it up. Gates conceded that CSS implementation was a necessary step forward and assured her it was in execution for Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer 7, or IE7. For the next year, Microsoft even sent Holzschlag around the world to talk about the importance of web standards and what the future of the web could be.
But CSS implementation wasn’t so easy. IE7 and IE8 came out without any meaningful strides toward a more functional browser, and Microsoft slowly lost its hold on its once-dominant market share.
“We could not save the browser,” Holzschlag said. “And this has resulted in Chrome becoming Google, becoming everywhere.”
But Holzschlag, along with WaSP and the W3C, has kept alive the quest for an open web.
“‘Open web’ is a sweeping term — it encompasses technical concepts like open-source code and open standards. It also encompasses democratic concepts like free expression and digital inclusion,” wrote Mark Zurman, director of the Mozilla Foundation. “But there’s a single underlying principle connecting all these ideas: An open web is a web by and for all its users, not select gatekeepers or governments.”
Unfortunately, the next phase in Internet history turned away yet again from the structures that would support a truly open web. In 2001, Berners Lee and W3C began developing XML, the next iteration of HTML that would greatly support the standards they hoped to implement. Holzschlag, as the then-leader of WaSP, had a vested interest in the new markup language’s development. However, XML would likely not be backwards compatible with sites built with HTML 4 and earlier versions?, which many in the industry balked at.
Meanwhile, a group called the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) began working on its own specifications for advancing ordinary HTML, a project that would result in HTML 5. The group wanted to create a platform for dynamic web applications, moving away from the document-object model (DOM), to better support the rise in heavily trafficked e-commerce and social media sites. Eventually, HTML5 won out over XML. W3C adopted it as its recommended standard.
Holzschlag attributes this fork in the road to the source of many of the web’s current problems.
“You open up an HTML document and you see a script call that goes to an external script that loads an application,” Holzschlag said. “When you get to a web page, you can download an external application for your local computer, read the website, or have a different application running on every one of your devices. It’s like, ‘Way to break the dream.’”
This application-based model makes it difficult to apply standards across the board. Rather than following the IT principle of “writing it once, applying it everywhere,” each site today comes with its own design, set of rules, and set of complications.
Accessibility suffers. Without the easy application of widespread standards, addressing issues of noncompliance can feel like one never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
“The accessibility folks, they get it because they know what happens when you put all of those barriers to entry in the way,” Holzschlag said. “Everything that is content becomes unavailable, inaccessible. This is not tack-it-on. …It's about humanity being able to get and interact with the content.”
Luckily, the Internet moves fast, with power players and dominant systems rising and falling swiftly. Holzschlag sees a horizon full of possibilities for a truly inclusive web, one in which technology supports the needs and preferences of its users, with the emergence of technologies like cryptocurrency and virtual reality.
“Today's designers are moving into this web 3.0, these very complicated metaverses, which is an immersive technology using the senses,” she said. “You want to have touch. You want to have smell. You want to have sound. You want to have video. You want to have captioning. You want to have every single possible thing there because somebody is going to use it.”
After 30 years of writing about, advocating for, and striving to achieve an open web, you would think Holzschlag would be tired of the constant challenges. Hardly.
“People are like, ‘Oh my God, are we going to be done yet?’” she said. “Which just cracks me up because it's like, evolutionary technology is evolutionary. Do you understand that concept? We don't know where we're going to end up and that's the fun of it.”
Molly Holzschlag’s May 9 keynote will be at 5 pm CT on Redefining Accessibility for the World Wide Web. The event will take place at the Holiday Inn Town Lake in Austin, Texas. It will be open to the public and broadcast live on the Knowbility YouTube channel.
Tickets for An Evening with Molly Holzschlag
Tickets for John Slatin AccessU 2022