The way people use the World Wide Web has changed, even for the folks who work at the World Wide Web Consortium.

The W3C is holding its annual meeting this week in Santa Clara, with its advisory committee working to set the group’s strategic direction. Privacy, security and identity are on the group’s agenda, said the W3C’s director of communications Ian Jacobs.

A new Tracking Protection Working Group is working to ensure end-user privacy by collaborating with browser vendors, regulators and other stakeholders to meet regulatory requirements regarding the issues. Jacobs said the group has an aggressive timeline, working to finish in the next nine months. (It already has a first draft of a “do not track” specification.)

“As the Web expands into more areas and devices, there is a lot of API work going on,” he said. “[We are] basically getting a request a week for an API.”

The W3C also recently held its third workshop on the convergence of the Web and television. “We want content producers to talk about their requirements [for what they need from the Web],” Jacobs said. “This is an industry looking at the Web as a platform for interoperability. It is rooted in HTML5, but there are hundreds of specifications around it to create a highly interoperable platform that will work on any device.”

Jacobs cited Hulu, YouTube and other websites as examples of entities disseminating rich media content through the Web, and that are forcing people to ponder such things as creating standards for a television viewer watching TV at breakfast and switching seamlessly over to a tablet computer as he or she leaves for work, or for people using their cell phones as a remote, or to place an order over the Web while watching TV.

The Web has changed in other ways as well. For those working in online communities, that means quick group startups, intellectual property ownership, continuation of the community even after a project is completed (so long as the community is healthy), and letting non-members with good ideas come to the table.

“The world has changed,” said Jacobs. “There are new players with different expectations about how to work. Facebook is now a W3C member. It’s how people expect to collaborate and get work done.”

To that end, he worked on developing new Community Groups and Business Groups, which launched in August, to replace the Incubator Groups begun in 2005. The W3C still has its Working Groups designation; these groups are designed to produce standards and have permanent W3C staff assigned to them, he said. The others were created to address some of the changes in how communities want to work on the Web.

“We did this because we weren’t getting all the people we wanted contributing to the W3C,” Jacobs said. “We wanted to make it open to all, without a fee or a time limit, to make it possible to get people involved with the W3C and increase the quality of the work.”

Getting past limitations
A big barrier to entry, though, was the issue of patent protection. In 2004, the W3C implemented its Patent Policy for Working Groups, which Jacobs said was the industry’s first royalty-free patent protection policy. “It’s so important that Web standards be available to anyone royalty-free,” he explained.

The policy basically stated that if an individual in a working group is working on a standard and that standard gets published, any patents the individual holds can be released freely to anyone who wants to use the standard. Working groups are chartered, and the scope of the charter limits what documents the group can produce. Participants review that scope carefully, since ultimately their patent commitments will be over any specification the group creates.

That was fine for the Working Groups, but the Community Groups and Business Groups looking to start up quickly were slowed by the patent policy and the time it takes to determine how participants would commit their patents. Jacobs said the policy was tweaked to allow for faster startup, but still keep things palatable for patent holders. Community and Business Groups have no charters and less W3C support. Jacobs explained the organization wants participants “to make royalty-free licensing commitments over the entire text, not just their own contributions.”

What this means is that Working Groups are slower to start but provide the W3C with greater certainty about their outcome, as participants can “opt out” before the project is even under way. Conversely, Community and Business Groups are faster to start, but it is uncertain as to whether or not all participants will “opt in” to allow royalty-free use of their patents at the end, Jacobs explained.

Participation and inclusion were identified as top priorities by Jeff Jaffe, the organization’s CEO, who arrived in March 2010 after stints as president of Bell Labs Research and CTO of Novell, among other stops. After talking to members and non-members for months, Jacobs said, the W3C came to realize that communities want expertise, along with a great platform for collaboration.

“The W3C can’t keep up with the proliferation of cool tools out there,” Jacobs said. “We have a nice platform for collaboration, but it’s not cutting edge. What we have is the expertise: thousands of participants, a long history, experience in getting work done. The infrastructure’s not the main piece.”

It’s hard to tell what the next thing for the Web will be, Jacobs said, but he acknowledged the W3C will need new mechanisms in place to deal with the changing Web, and to understand how to allocate its resources.