Facebook rebuffs W3C's HTML5 caution

Shortly after a World Wide Web Consortium executive warned that HTML5 is only ready for experimental use so far, one of the biggest Web sites showed how it believes otherwise.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
The new frontier of emerging Web standards is populated by a hodge-podge of acronyms.
The new frontier of emerging Web standards is populated by a hodge-podge of acronyms. Bruce Lawson

Is HTML5, the next version of the standard used to describe Web pages, ready for real-world use now or isn't it?

One of its biggest allies, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that's working hard to create the standard, thinks not. But Facebook, one of the world's most popular Web sites, begs to differ. Indeed, on Tuesday, David Recordon, Facebook's senior open programs manager, published a description of how Facebook is using HTML5 right now.

The ruckus began with an InfoWorld interview last week. In it, Philippe Le Hegaret, who oversees HTML5 standardization, was quoted as saying, "The problem we're facing right now is there is already a lot of excitement for HTML5, but it's a little too early to deploy it because we're running into interoperability issues." In other words, what a programmer writes won't show up the same on different browsers.

Le Hegaret's words triggered derision from some quarters. HTML5 book co-author Remy Sharp ranted about Le Hegaret's position, and Palm director of developer relations Dion Almaer added, "I utterly disagree with Philippe, and instead implore you to think about what your site or app can be in 2010 with the new capabilities."

Le Hegaret stuck to his guns. "It's fine to experiment with HTML5 and existing implementations, but don't expect stability," he told Mike Schroepfer, Facebook's vice president engineering, on Twitter. And to Brad Neuberg, a former Google Web programmer who plans to launch a start-up basing products on HTML5, he had this response: "There are interop issues with HTML5 and recommend to use hacks isn't the right approach [sic]."

Facebook, though, countered with evidence that at least in its case, some HTML5 technology is ready for use right now.

"Our engineering teams started shipping HTML5 functionality over the past few months and we're quite excited by what's already possible," said Recordon, using the broad definition that includes several other Web standards besides just the strictly defined HTML5 under development.

One example is use of the geolocation interface, which lets the browser share a user's location with a Web site once the user has granted permission. Another is use of the history interface that can better manage what a Facebook user sees at a given Web address on the site. Facebook also plans to use HTML5's Web storage abilities for better data caching and Web Sockets for better live communications between the server and browser, Recordon said. Finally, Facebook has built support for HTML5's built-in video for iOS devices.

To be fair, the issue of adopting HTML5 is much too nuanced for a single sentence of advice. Web sites need not adopt all of HTML5; different components are in varying states of maturity and have varying degrees of support in browsers. Web sites often sniff out what browser is visiting to deliver an appropriate page. And Web developers have different requirements for support for old browsers.

In a blog post, Le Hegaret urged developers to help wrap up by May a major step in HTML5 standardization called last call.

"The challenge presented by HTML5, which I mentioned a month ago, is the need to test, refine, and mature certain aspects of the specification in order to support the early adopters, the innovators, and the engineers who are embracing this technology today," Le Hegaret said. The W3C is grappling with requests to extend HTML5, for example, with support for metadata, chapters, and videoconferencing with video, he said, as last call approaches. "We want to hear from those already working with the draft specification so we can use the test cases to identify interoperability issues that need to be addressed leading up to last call in May of next year," he said.

And there are signs that these two sides are more allies than enemies.

Palm's Almaer later redirected some of his combativeness away from Le Hegaret and toward what he decided is a bigger foe: proprietary application foundations that compete with the Web.

He didn't mention all of them by name, but they're clear: old ones such as Windows being joined by new ones such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Programmers who write software for these foundations can write rich applications and reach millions of customers, but their software works only on that platform.

The Web, in contrast, spans all of them, but to compete effectively, it must grow beyond its roots as a way to present static documents.

"We need to weaponize *today* against the app ecosystems in the fight for the Web," Almaer said. "Developers need a solid platform that they know they can build on. With HTML5 we have our first opportunity to deliver an app platform rather than a documentation hypertext system that happens to have enough hack-ability that we could add in Ajax," he said, referring to early JavaScript-based methods to build Web apps.

To reach that potential, though, programmers must embrace HTML and its related new standards now rather than wait for standards perfection. "I think Philippe has some of the right idea after all, but I do hope he realizes that we can't wait for the full HTML5 to bear out," Almaer said.

Updated 12:49 p.m. PDT with information from Le Hegaret blog post and original HTML5 graphic from Bruce Lawson..