Fans of HTML will be either thrilled or annoyed by the news that there
will soon be two independently maintained standards claiming to be the
authoritative definition of HTML. The Web Hypertext Application
Technology Working Group (WHATWG), a team comprised of representatives
from various browser makers, announced that it is
terminating its collaboration with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
on the standardization of HTML 5. In WHATWG's account of the split, it
is continuing to develop the "living standard" of HTML, while W3C's
HTML 5 specification is a frozen "snapshot" of HTML. Based on the public statements and history
between the two groups, the underlying issue has more to do with the
standardization process than it does with technical differences
between their versions of HTML. Nevertheless, competition over
who has the right to declare their vision of HTML the official
standard will likely cause headaches for web developers.
WHATWG founder and chief public spokesman Ian Hickson posted
the news to the WHATWG mailing list on July 19. Hickson (who is a Google
employee) had been the primary editor for both the WHATWG and for
W3C's HTML Working Group. According to the announcement, Hickson will
continue to be the lead editor of WHATWG's HTML work, but leave the
W3C editor position. WHATWG will formally be a W3C "community group"
(CG), and will continue to use a W3C-hosted issue tracker. On the
latter point, however, Hickson and the W3C did go through the existing
bugs filed against the previously-unified HTML specification and clone
separate copies, one for each of the now distinct specifications.
upshot is that WHATWG now regards its version of HTML as the
definitive standard, which will continue to evolve, without declaring
numbered versions. Hickson concluded "My hope is that the net
effect of all this will be that work on the HTML Living Standard will
accelerate again, resuming the pace it had before we started working
with the W3C working group."
Hickson cited two reasons for the split. First, the W3C separated out
several parts of the HTML 5 specification into distinct
sub-specifications (such as the 2D canvas element,
postMessage, and server-sent events). The result, he said, was
"an increasing confusion of versions" of the
specification, in response to which WHATWG "went
back to just having a single spec on the WHATWG side which contains
everything I work on." Second is a divergence between the
WHATWG and W3C processes. Attempting to explain what that means,
Hickson described WHATWG's process as "fixing
bugs as we find them, adding new features as they become necessary and
viable, and generally tracking implementations." In contrast,
he said, the W3C HTML working group is focused on "creating a
snapshot developed according to the venerable W3C process."
What, work in a group?
To the untrained ear, those reasons might sound like WHATWG simply
does not want to participate in a standards process at all. But there is
more pointed criticism of the W3C on the WHATWG site, which
calls the term HTML 5 a "buzzword" and enumerates several specific
differences between the two standards, linking most of those to W3C
HTML working group decisions that WHATWG evidently found disagreeable.
The decisions that WHATWG critiques date back to mid-2010, although
many of them seem to be connected to the working group's recent
attempts to finalize HTML 5 over the course of 2011-2012 — such
as disagreements over the actual wording of the specification and its
inline advice (as opposed to, say, contradicting definitions of HTML
elements or attributes).
WHATWG's disinterest in finalizing the standard was also evident in a
Hickson made in January 2011. That post announced that WHATWG's version of HTML would
drop version numbers altogether, on the grounds that "the
technology is not versioned and instead we just have a living document
that defines the technology ." The HTML "Living Standard"
terminology persists in the group's current communication. W3C, in
contrast, is still moving forward with finalizing the HTML 5
specification and its successors. In an April message
to the HTML Working Group list, Maciej Stachowiak said the W3C has
begun to extend the HTML Working Group's charter to tackle "HTML.Next"
and will proceed to examine proposals, including "the WHATWG
HTML specification, which we anticipate will be one such
Viewed in that sense, the split between the two groups is not so much a
forking of HTML into separate proposals as W3C's HTML 5 is a "frozen
branch" of WHATWG's trunk. Or it would be, were it not for both
groups' claims to represent the official standard for HTML. Hickson
made this claim explicitly in his email, calling WHATWG's HTML Living
Standard the "canonical description of HTML and related
technologies." W3C's claim to ownership is less overt, but the
group and its founder Tim Berners-Lee have written and formalized HTML
since its inception in the 1990s. The first draft
was written in 1993, with subsequent revisions published as IETF RFCs
before the W3C process took over.
WHATWG was founded by a group of browser makers who felt that W3C's
process was too slow and bureaucratic, so perhaps it is miraculous
that the two groups were able to collaborate so successfully as long
as they did. In any case, the practical question is what the split
means for HTML developers — and, by extension, web users.
The great thing about standards is ...
The principal reason for concern is that if the two specifications drift in
different directions, web developers could be
forced to add even more workarounds to match both, or else sites
could be branded "WHATWG HTML compatible" or "W3C HTML compatible," reminiscent of a
return to the dark days of serious browser incompatibilities. In addition,
WHATWG's "living standard" approach has its own critics, principally
on the grounds that a constantly-in-flux document makes for a poor standard. A commenter named Mike asked
on the 2011 blog post "How do you make a test suite and a
browser compatibility chart for a “living standard”? It sounds like
HTML is becoming a sort of Wikipedia revision style chaotic
nightmare." Similarly, Jukka Korpela said:
“Living specification” sounds like a draft that may and will change at
any moment and is probably not even complete at any moment of time but
is still called a “specification”, since that sounds cool,
technological, and impressive.
I can’t believe I feel the need to explain such a trivial thing, but
really, a “specification” is a complete, consistent, stable, and
published normative description. It can be cited and referred to as a
requirement, e.g. in contracts and product descriptions. Typos,
apparent mistakes etc. can and should be corrected, but the content is
not changed as you go just because someone or some committee changes
its mind. The specification definitely does not “live”; its life is in
serving various purposes _as it is_. Development work takes place
elsewhere and may eventually lead to a new specification.
So “living specification” is about as oxymoronic as you can get.
Indeed, the current
presentation of WHATWG's incarnation of HTML does sport a
Wikipedia-style "last updated" timestamp at the top (the last update
was July 24, 2012 as of press time), plus floating tooltip-style
markers that point out certain paragraphs as "ready for first
implementations" from the margins — both features that hardly
inspire confidence in the specification's stability.
Steve Faulkner replied
to Hickson on the WHATWG list and took direct issue with WHATWG's
assertion of canonical-ness. "The claim that HTML the living
standard is canonical appears to imply that the requirements and
advice contained within HTML the living standard is more correct than
what is in the HTML5 specification." In particular, Faulkner
pointed out that WHATWG's specification, like W3C's, cover only
browser implementations and not authoring recommendations (which
tackle critical issues like accessibility in addition to stylistic
advice). On that front, Faulkner said, the W3C's specification has
the "more accurate set of
requirements and advice, that takes into account current implementation
realities, thus providing [authors] with more practical advice and thus end
users with a better experience."
Hickson and WHATWG have not responded publicly to Faulkner's message,
but perhaps that is to be expected. It seems clear that WHATWG's
primary motivation is continuing to add to HTML and related
technologies as quickly and as often as its members wish. Of course,
that highlights another thorny issue. As a standards-setting
organization, WHATWG is not particularly accountable; membership is by
invitation-only and Hickson can only be removed as HTML editor by the
members. Other members of the public are welcome to join the mailing
lists as "contributors," however. W3C may not be particularly
democratic either, but its flavor of bureaucracy is more diffuse, with
various working groups, interest groups, coordination groups, and
The H postulated
in 2011 that the seeds for the divergence of the two groups could be
traced back to WHATWG's dislike of W3C's HTML 5 logo and related
branding effort. One would hope that a core web technology like HTML
would be above that level of triviality, but the alternative reasons
given in public are not much more satisfying. With any luck, though, the web will
eventually route around the damage — one way or another.
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