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HTML's future stronger as years-old web technology rift heals

The WHATWG and W3C are allies, but Google's Chrome holds much of the real power.

A years-old, sometimes emotional division over the web's core HTML technology has ended with an agreement designed to make it easier to chart the web's future

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Standards define how things work together. How far apart are the prongs on an electrical plug? How large is a sheet of letter-size paper? But for nearly a decade, two separate groups have been issuing separate documents to define Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, the standard that tells you how to make a web page.

On Tuesday, those groups -- the original World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) that browser makers later founded -- announced an alliance. Having two separate HTML specifications "is generally harmful," W3C Chief Executive Jeff Jaffe said in a blog post.

Under a memorandum of understanding, WHATWG will continue to publish the HTML "living standard," a version that constantly evolves as the web itself changes. The W3C will no longer publish its own alternative. Instead, it'll take periodic WHATWG standard snapshots through its formal recommendation process and offer its assurances that those versions of the standard can be used without fear of patent violation.

Browser makers always held effective control over standards like HTML. That's because websites can use any technology browsers include and can't use any technology they shun. But the WHATWG-W3C alliance unifies the effort to advance that technology.

"This is really good news for web standards," tweeted Daniel Applequist, a member of the Samsung Internet browser team and co-chair of the W3C Technical Architecture Group. "The WHATWG/W3C infighting has been a dangerous distraction to the work of the web standards community: to maintain and evolve the open web platform."

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The open web is a remarkable achievement, but it arguably faces a different challenge than the WHATWG-W3C split. That challenge is the power of Google's Chrome, which dominates the web with 63 percent of website usage, according to StatCounter. On top of that, many other browsers -- including Brave, Microsoft Edge, Samsung Internet, Vivaldi and Opera -- are built on Chrome's open-source foundation, called Chromium.

So although web standards are developed by large groups of affected people, Chrome in practice acts as a gatekeeper.

The WHATWG will maintain the single HTML version of a related technology called the Document Object Model, or DOM, for understanding how web pages are put together. But the W3C said it will continue its work trying to resolve any problems that the broader technology world may have with the standards.

"W3C remains committed to ensuring that HTML development continues to take into account the needs of the global community, and continues to improve in areas such as accessibility, internationalization and privacy while providing greater interoperability, performance and security," the W3C said in an announcement of the alliance.

Why the split? Two decades ago, W3C members developed HTML, but they largely abandoned it to pursue what they thought would be a better alternative called XHTML. But XHTML ultimately failed, and browser makers Opera, Firefox and Apple struck off on their own to form WHATWG.

That effort produced the standard ultimately called HTML5 as the W3C tried to reclaim HTML standardization. After more than a decade of trying, the organization at least has reconciliation and a role to play, if not control.