Won't Make Your Web Site Work with Linux? We'll Do It for You.

by Brenno J.S.A.A.F. Winter

With the coming of a single European currency, the state-owned Dutch Railways introduced a new web site for public services, including the on-line national and European train timetables. Because of some JavaScript used on the site, only Microsoft Internet Explorer versions 4.5 and up were supported as valid browsers when the site premiered, leaving users of other browsers without train information. The site also announced that only MSIE was supported, further driving people away.

As is usual when this type of thing happens, the Open Source community started sending protest e-mails to the webmaster. But for web developers Peter Blokland, Valentijn Sessink and Wiard Gorter, enough was enough. They decided to build a shadow web site that shows travelers needed information in a standardized way, so that everybody could read it no matter what browser they used. All of a sudden everybody was awake, and the media couldn't stop writing about it.

An HTTP HEAD request shows that both the official site and the shadow site are running Apache/1.3.22 on Red Hat Linux.

Original site: Server: Apache/1.3.22 (Unix) (Red-Hat/Linux) mod_ssl/2.8.5 OpenSSL/0.9.6 DAV/1.0.2 PHP/4.0.4pl1 mod_perl/1.24_01

Shadow site: Server: Apache/1.3.22 (Unix) (Red-Hat/Linux) PHP/4.0.4pl1 mod_throttle/3.1.2

Public Means for Everybody, and We Don't Want an Internet XP

For Wiard Gorter the response was overwhelming and unexpected. Users flocked to the shadow site, and within 48 hours it processed around 14,000 travel requests. Almost every major newspaper and media outlet reacted to the new site, and the three designers received dozens of supportive e-mails.

What is really interesting is the fact that consumers sent a strong signal to a large commercial party that they don't want to be forced into a non-public standard. "A public service should be available to the majority of the public", says Wiard Gorter. As the engineer behind another major Dutch web site, he discovered that 20-25% percent of the users are using a Netscape or Mozilla-based browser. He adds, "We don't want to have an Internet XP in two years."

The Dutch railways said they aren't against other browsers. They acknowledged the issue but said they had no option other than what they did, because the new web site needed to be up and running by January 1, 2002, the date the EURO was being introduced. "We couldn't delay the process because of the EURO, and with time running out we decided to release the web site in phases", explains Wouter Cassee, who is responsible for the official web site. The pragmatic decision was that the majority of people would be served by making everything Internet Explorer ready, with support for other browsers coming in later steps.

As of January 19, Mozilla-based browsers are supported and other browsers have a text-only version. In the next release, scheduled for sometime in February, Opera will be supported. After that, solutions for visually impaired people will be available.

Cassee acknowledges that the action taken by the Open Source community and the resulting media attention did make a difference and has led to expedited releases of the new versions of the web site.

The railway system was already having problems before the browser issue, and its reputation is currently at its lowest point due to a poor on-time departure record. As a consequence of government intervention, a majority of the executives have decided to "pursue their career outside the company". Cassee made it very explicit, however, that the release of the initial site as supporting only MSIE 4.5 and higher was an unfortunate choice but not a "political" one.

Technically Not Too Difficult to Do

In building the shadow site, Wiard Gorter explains that Blokland, Sessink and he wanted to show it was technically not too difficult a thing to do. In only three days they wrote a PHP script that posted queries to the railway's web site and then adjusted the results until they were "standards-based" again. Quite a bit of time was spent making the web site attractive to users. Gorter explains that it is not their intent to take people away from the web site of the Dutch railways, just to solve the compatibility issue. If people visit the shadow site with Microsoft Internet Explorer, they are kindly asked to proceed to the official web site. The developers merely wanted to prove that it could be done easily and that there was no excuse not to do it.

Other Web Sites Are the Next Target

It is clear that the community made a difference here, and if it's up to Gorter, more web sites will follow. He says, "We have plans to target other web sites that are also relevant to the public domain but are not friendly for all web browsers. People are now starting to be aware of the issue and that is good."

So Dutch companies are now warned that the power of the community reaches farther than we might have thought in some time. People who believed that a standards-based Internet was something of the past will clearly have to rethink that opinion. It seems to me that this is something to be continued.

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