HTML editor dumps 'HTML5' even as W3C touts it

Concluding HTML version numbers are a relic of a bygone age, Ian Hickson adopts a "living document" approach. Not so the W3C standards group.

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4 min read
The W3C's new HTML5 logo
The W3C's new HTML5 logo W3C

Two days after the World Wide Web Consortium debuted a flashy new HTML5 badge, none other than the editor of the Hypertext Markup Language standard has dumped the hot tech buzzword.

"HTML is the new HTML5," Ian Hickson, who edits the specification, said in a blog post yesterday. The announcement embodies a more continuous development process that he's planned for more than a year, but Hickson told CNET today that the W3C's HTML5 badge--which controversially stands for a number of Web technologies beyond HTML--hastened a change that had been planned for later in 2011.

"Now even the W3C is saying 'HTML5' means everything from CSS to font formats, so advocates really were left without anything to specifically refer to HTML. So we asked around, and the objections to the rename were much reduced already, even compared to a week ago, so we went for it," Hickson said.

The demise of the HTML5 label, though, will only affect one of the two groups that oversees HTML's development: the W3C remains attached.

Hickson is a Google employee who has shepherded the standard for years, first through an informal group called the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group (WHATWG) and now also with the more buttoned-down World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Because Hickson isn't the sole authority involved, don't expect the HTML5 standard or term to suddenly vanish. Do expect a more fluid development approach, though.

At WHATWG, there will be no more version numbers attached to new iterations of the HTML, Hickson said. "The WHATWG HTML spec can now be considered a 'living standard.' It's more mature than any version of the HTML specification to date, so it made no sense for us to keep referring to it as merely a draft," Hickson said.

However, the W3C will continue with HTML5 standardization, reflecting the tensions that result from two different organizations overseeing HTML.

"W3C remains the standards body for HTML5," spokesman Ian Jacobs said in a statement today. Jacobs is not aware of any changes that Hickson's decision will have on that process, he said.

Hickson believes, though, that browser makers are better off following a continuously updated "living standard" than snapshots taken of that standard at various points in its progression. He said in the blog post:

In practice, implementations [browsers] all followed the latest specs draft anyway, not the latest snapshots. The problem with following a snapshot is that you end up following something that is known to be wrong. That's obviously not the way to get interoperability! This has in fact been a real problem at the W3C, where mistakes are found and fixed in the editors' drafts of specifications, but implementors [browser makers] who aren't fully engaged in the process go and implement obsolete snapshots instead, including those bugs, without realizing the problems, and resulting in differences between the browsers.

And he told CNET that he'd like for the W3C to adopt his viewpoint, though he seems to view it as very unlikely.

"Separate from the work at the WHATWG, and unrelated to this recent announcement, I've been trying to convince the W3C to switch to an unversioned model for a long time. It's very much at odds with the entire way the W3C is structured," Hickson said, with standards moving through a progression of drafts and votes through a process driven in part by patent matters.

"Still, I have hope that in time we can evolve the W3C," Hickson added. "The WHATWG has already moved the W3C towards a more open model, with at least some working groups now operating almost entirely in public mailing lists, and some even allowing anyone to join. That alone would have been unfathomable a decade ago."

WHATWG kept the HTML standard alive for several years when the W3C was pursuing an incompatible and ultimately unsuccessful sequel called XHTML 2.0. WHATWG has serious clout because it was founded by browser makers who have a major say in which new features arrive for use on the Web and which fall by the wayside.

WHATWG's position has changed in recent years, though. For one thing, the W3C is actively trying to engage with developers and be a friendlier forum for experimenting with new ideas. For another, Microsoft--newly re-engaged in Web standards development and newly influential with its upcoming Internet Explorer 9 browser--has thrown its weight behind the W3C as the place to get things done.

And not everyone is happy with Hickson's declaration. One Web developer responded to Hickson:

Maybe something more granular than full point revisions is advised, but a 'living standard' is a disaster...Say I want to make sure that 95 percent of my visitors or 70 percent or whatever can use my Web site as designed, with my spending hours coding up fallbacks and all that crap? 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.

Another developer was also disgruntled--but resigned himself to the new development realities: "It feels as if this is just the acceptance of the reality that the pace our industry innovates and develops makes it impossible but to work in any other way apart from a 'living' standard."

Updated 12:43 p.m. PT with comment from Hickson.