Martian headsets, and why standards are hard

Joel Spolsky writes about the real-world difficulty of standards in "Martian Headsets". The article was spurred by Joel's observations on the Microsoft IE8 team's rock-and-a-hard-place predicament. The article uses a clever example of Martian MP3 players and headphones to show why standards start out easy to implement but end up nearly impossible despite everyone's well-meaning efforts.

Joel also tosses in an interesting anecdote about the Bible as a "standard":

If you've ever visited the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities of Jerusalem, all of whom agree in complete and utter adherence to every iota of Jewish law, you will discover that despite general agreement on what constitutes kosher food, that you will not find a rabbi from one ultra-orthodox community who is willing to eat at the home of a rabbi from a different ultra-orthodox community. And the web designers are discovering what the Jews of Mea Shearim have known for decades: just because you all agree to follow one book [of standards] doesn't ensure compatibility, because the laws are so complex and complicated and convoluted that it's almost impossible to understand them all well enough to avoid traps and landmines.

Standards are a great goal, of course, but before you become a standards fanatic you have to understand that due to the failings of human beings, standards are sometimes misinterpreted, sometimes confusing and even ambiguous.

After reading the article, I feel sorry for the IE8 team. And it's just a matter of time before Firefox, Opera, and all the other browsers feel the pain, too…

[via "The Flamewar of the Century" at]

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