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Barriers to the Web: intelligent solutions to a dynamic problem

A bit of background

When Timothy Berners-Lee arrived at ERCIM, at the beginning of the 1990s, he found that computers were already being used by many people there. Every computer was a different make, with its own operating system, printer, etc.

Yet he also saw that there was a nearly total lack of communication between their machines – whatever was written by one worker could not, without great difficulty, be passed on to another member of staff.

Essentially, this is what prompted Tim to develop HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), which resulted in nothing other than the WWW: the Web.

For Berners-Lee, the objective of HTML and other codes was standardisation: so that machines could speak a common language and transmit information regardless of its characteristics and also allow people to access this information regardless of where they were located or the machine they were using.

This is the reason why Berners-Lee decided not to sell his invention to anyone; instead, he created a consortium where EVERYONE would work together to standardise the Web, known as W3C. Soon after he founded WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative), a cross-sector committee which guaranteed that ALL recommendations made by the W3C ensured TOTAL accessibility to the World Wide Web and its services.

Barriers: a human custom

Despite the above efforts, compliance with W3C’s guidelines, recommendations and standards still eludes us and humans continue to raise barriers as technological progress is made. Back when the tom-tom drum was a communication tool, deaf people were excluded; in the case of smoke signals, it was the vision-impaired. And now, with the advent of the INTERNET, we continue to put up significant barriers that still affect many people. These barriers have improved over time but continue to exist. Moreover, as the Web, the INTERNET OF THINGS, advances, new barriers are created every day.

Perhaps some of you may remember seeing, for example, an online store with a website stating: This website is best displayed in INTERNET EXPLORER X.X or even worse: INTERNET EXPLORER X.X is required to view this website correctly. It would be hard to imagine a store which, for example, required its customers to dress in a certain way in order to enter.

Fortunately barriers of the latter type have been taken down by the market itself. The websites of the biggest online stores function correctly using nearly ALL web browsers, and do so for EVERYONE. Older persons, persons with functional diversity –all users – are able to make an online purchase with two or three clicks of the mouse. But it wasn’t always like this.

We could offer up many more examples, but instead, let us move to the matter at hand:

The Web continues to be difficult to access for many people, especially for older persons who often do not understand its language, structure or both.  Government websites are a clear example of this.

The banking sector, for security reasons, installs access and identification systems that are so complex (buttons that change location, passwords that can ONLY be entered by clicking the mouse, etc.), that many people simply do not do their banking online as they are unable to access their bank accounts via the Internet.

The Web, as the interface of things, which is now being used with the so-called INTERNET OF THINGS, in many instances, has only the bare minimum in terms of accessibility and usability. No consideration is given to people, who are the ones who are supposed to handle these THINGS.

There are also many online stores which aren’t as big as the aforementioned giants (which sell train and coach tickets and others), which also lack adequate accessibility or usability criteria.

What is lost with barriers?

It’s clear that from a purely market-oriented standpoint, excluding persons from participating digitally means lost customers – this does not mean potential customers alone. We’re talking about people, who, despite being fully entitled to do so, also have the buying power to purchase our products and services online.

From a legal standpoint, not granting them access to certain needed services (banking, etc.) or even worse, public services offered by the government, is an infringement of the law in many countries.

Present and future: intelligent solutions for an intelligent World Wide Web

Accessibility solutions have long been the object of costly auditing processes which, in addition to being expensive, required websites to be remodelled at the expense of website owners who were often not too happy about these recommendations.

Yet the Web is an ever-changing, increasingly dynamic interface in a state of constant self-generation; this means that in many cases traditional solutions are no longer useful. 

The time has come for intelligent solutions that are as dynamic as the Web itself; solutions which do not require website owners to alter their websites and which will make the Internet accessible and configurable, whilst adapting to the needs of all users.