Project Management and the Dangers of Too Many Cooks

There's a reason it took more than a decade to finish the HTML5 standard. When too many stakeholders get their hands on a project—especially a high-profile one—innovation can slow to a crawl. The secret is to chop things up into smaller bites.

The most interesting technology discussion I had last week involved Taco Bell.

As I noted in Wednesday Buzz last week, the Quesarito master took an unusual approach to marketing its new mobile ordering app: Rather than using its social feeds and website to promote the app, the company turned off its other marketing channels.

It was clearly a stunt—an effective one, but a stunt nonetheless—and Taco Bell was back on the internet at noon on Friday.

But it raised a good question that became the subject of a long email thread: Are apps the new websites, and are we going to start seeing brands ignoring the existing HTML ecosystem? People in the group debate were generally of two minds on the topic, with most saying that the web still matters but that apps are growing in importance.

If you were to compare the two platforms on a line chart, you’d see the web growing, but apps growing faster. Apps have the potential to gradually outpace the old standby. The reason has everything to do with the velocity of innovation.

Don’t understand what I mean? I submit to you the creation of HTML5.

HTML5: A Decade in the Making

In tandem with the JavaScript programming language and cascading style sheets (CSS), HTML makes up the backbone of the web.

The problem is that eventually the web’s needs began to outpace HTML’s modest aims, and this created an upkeep challenge. Developers have long been quick to find ways to stretch what HTML can do, working around browser limitations in the process. Hence, the rise of plugins like Flash.

This creates a challenge for the standards bodies behind the markup language, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG). Remember how developers complained that it took Microsoft forever to update Internet Explorer 6 to Internet Explorer 7? The five years that version update took was lightning fast compared with the 15 years between the standardization of HTML 4.01 and last month’s finalization of HTML5.

HTML5 has been in the works for a decade, but W3C only said that HTML5 was done last week. And reaching the finish line was anything but smooth, with some internal debate between the two groups bubbling up to the surface.

In the interim, a lot happened: W3C tried to build another spec entirely, XHTML, an effort to bring better modularity from the broader XML language on which the HTML language was based. XHTML was eventually abandoned amid complaints that the approach wasn’t attuned to how web developers work.

The standardization of HTML5 is the ultimate “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation.

WHATWG came as a reaction to the XHTML effort in 2004, and soon after it started work on HTML5. The web’s fundamental markup language, being interpreted in so many ways over the years due to a lack of consistency from standards bodies and browser-makers alike, has only recently started to turn a corner thanks to the rise of more standards-friendly browsers like Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and Mozilla Firefox.

It’s still kind of a mess—a sloppily coded website still loads four different ways on four different browsers—but at least we’ve finalized HTML5.

The standardization of HTML5 is the ultimate “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation.

Why Mobile Is Winning

So where does Taco Bell come into all of this, anyway? Short version: It’s a clear example of how the mobile ecosystem has continued to make a compelling argument that, even with the higher level of development skill needed to build an app, it’s beating the traditional web game when it comes to buzz.

There are a lot of reasons for this, including that many more people are using mobile devices now than when HTML5 got its start in 2004. But I’d like to pose the possibility that the standards process slowed things down at a time when mobile giants found their ecosystems much less shackled.

The slow process—which, I should note, Apple and Google each have a hand in, due to their dual roles as browser-makers and phone-makers—was caused, in part, by different project management approaches. WHATWG relies on building HTML5 as a living document and slowly makes changes as needed; W3C is much more interested in specific version numbers. As CNET aptly puts it:

The tension between the W3C and the WHATWG has been present for years, but it’s got new consequences now: Anything that slows the improvement of the web means programmers are more likely to devote their energies to writing apps for smartphones and tablets running on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems instead of HTML5. When making their mobile operating systems, Google and Apple aren’t held back by the slower consensus-building processes used to make industry standards like HTML appeal to the broadest range of parties.

This isn’t to say that mobile manufacturers have always made it easy on developers: Apple, for instance, has only recently started to take off some of the more annoying limitations of its iOS platform. And unlike HTML, which anyone can create, the walled-garden approaches of iOS and Android mean there’s less freedom in what kind of apps one can build.

But for all the shackles that come with iOS and Android’s proprietary natures, you at least know what you’re getting when you develop on them.

Process Over Progress

For years, HTML was designed in a way counter to what its ever-changing audience expected and wanted. The slow-moving process didn’t match the high-velocity desires of developers. Meanwhile, mobile operating systems largely have kept pace with developers, building excitement that’s largely fading from the web.

For associations, this example highlights an uncomfortable truth about project management: Stakeholders can have a damaging effect on the process. A lack of understanding of your audience’s needs can cause you to take paths counter to them. And when things slow down, people can and will take matters into their own hands—or worse, a competitor will usurp you.

Building nimbly—say, using agile development techniques where you’re constantly making big changes to small things—has a lot of potential to speed progress up. In other words, you want an iterative approach rather than an overhaul-everything strategy—more like WHATWG’s “living document” approach, less like W3C’s focus on version numbers.

The Taco Bell app promotion was a stunt, but in its own subtle way, it suggested that commercial products didn’t need websites anymore to thrive—that, in the wrong context, they can slow you down. And that’s a scary thing to consider for the future of the web.

It’s enough to make you want to drop your chalupa.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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