HTML5 is done, but two groups still wrestle over Web's future

The World Wide Web Consortium finishes an update to this seminal Internet technology, but with two organizations in charge of the same Web standard, charting the Web's future is a mess.

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
10 min read

The W3C is promoting completion of the HTML5 standard, but much of the technology has been in use for years.
The W3C is promoting the completion of the HTML5 standard, though much of the technology has been in use for years. W3C

After a nearly 15-year gap, the World Wide Web Consortium said Tuesday it's done standardizing the new version 5 of HTML, one of the two fundamental technologies that makes the Web work.

But while HTML5 is finished, a tug-of-war over how to set such standards -- and therefore how to chart the future of the Web -- is far from over. That's because a second organization, the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group, is also in charge of HTML, and a rift between the two appears to be widening instead of closing.

The tension between the W3C and the WHATWG has been present for years, but it's got new consequences now: anything that slows the improvement of the Web means programmers are more likely to devote their energies to writing apps for smartphones and tablets running on Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems instead of HTML5. When making their mobile operating systems, Google and Apple aren't held back by the slower consensus-building processes used to make industry standards like HTML appeal to the broadest range of parties.

The Web isn't dying, but slow development lets the world of mobile apps claim the initiative. The Web's accomplishments -- a computing system bigger than any one company working on it, and one with an impressive reach across the computing industry -- diminish as its shortcomings rise to prominence.

In the meantime, the Web world must adjust to the differences between the two camps. The W3C, with a broader range of participants, uses a formally structured, deliberate process in which successions of drafts gradually become the final standards that released relatively infrequently. The WHATWG, born of browser makers' cooperation when the W3C spurned their desire to improve HTML, produces a " living document" that's continuously updated with the latest features and bug fixes. Where the W3C's standard is fixed and stable, the WHATWG's is fluid.

"It's absolutely right that those different interest groups slug it out," said Bruce Lawson, co-author of a book on HTML5 and an open standards advocate with browser maker Opera Software. "The Web is the biggest platform we've ever had. Therefore, it has more constituencies and competing interests than we've ever seen."

W3C: The Web will win

W3C Chief Executive Jeff Jaffe acknowledges that the mobile app world is attracting a lot of developer interest. But in his view, the Web will prevail in the long run because it can span so many devices.

W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe
W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe Stephen Shankland/CNET

"There's plenty of time for us to catch up," Jaffe said. "The power and promise of interoperability across platforms is extraordinarily powerful. The mobile app was just the for the phone, but now it's not. It's going to be the e-book reader, the automobile, the TV. And all the sudden, the promise of interoperability is going to become even more important than when it was just the phone."

To that end, Jaffe posted a blog earlier this month on application foundations. It calls for improvements in eight areas to make Web technologies more competitive with Android and iOS when it's time for developers to write apps.

"What I'm trying to do is change the culture of the Web community to also think about what the developers need," Jaffe said -- not just nuts and bolts but functions like security, payments and tools that work even if a device isn't connected to the Net.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, who follows programmer issues, agrees that life is too hard for Web developers. "Native development" -- writing apps for a specific operating system rather than for a Web browser on all operating systems -- "is much more straightforward."

Jaffe hopes to tackle these future standards issues this week in Santa Clara, Calif., at the W3C's annual Technical Plenary Advisory Committee (TPAC) conference. Alex Russell -- a Google employee who's trying to improve the W3C through work on its Technical Architecture Group (TAG) -- said TPAC also is a place to wrestle with the conflict around the best way to make standards.

"I think anyone trying to understand how screwed up this situation is really should come to W3C's TPAC," Russell said. "All of the agitators...will be there."

HTML5 and W3C's patent protections

For the W3C, the release of the final version of HTML5 -- a step formally called a "recommendation" -- is immensely significant. The nonprofit group was founded precisely to do such work, but the last version it released -- HTML 4.01 -- came in December 1999. The biggest change for average users of the Web, far and away, is video that becomes as ordinary as text and still images were before. That helps free the Web from browser plugins like Adobe Systems' Flash Player that extend browser abilities but which also open them to new security and performance risks.

The snarky W3C Memes blog pokes fun at the W3C's grand ambitions to compete with mobile apps with better Web standards.
The snarky W3C Memes blog pokes fun at the W3C's grand ambitions to compete with mobile apps with better Web standards. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

HTML, short for Hypertext Markup Language, is a set of instructions programmers use to build a Web page out of text, graphics and -- new to HTML5 -- video and audio. It's paired with HTTP, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which governs how a Web browser communicates with a Web server to fetch that HTML so it can build that Web page.

In the 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, those two standards have been joined by others. Two other important ones are JavaScript, which makes Web pages interactive by giving them a programming language, and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), which governs formatting. Those latter two have become even more important as the Web has transformed from static documents to websites that are so interactive that people now call them Web apps.

HTML, and Web technology in general, have big-name backers including Google, Mozilla and Microsoft. One very visible boost came in 2010 when Apple CEO Steve Jobs backed HTML5, CSS and JavaScript to make the Web interactive, dealing a major blow to Adobe's Flash. Apple's bread and butter today is iOS, though, and what publicity giveth, publicity taketh away, too, as when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said relying on HTML5 for the social network's mobile app was " one of the biggest mistakes if not the biggest strategic mistake that we made."

The recommendation stage has two important facets. First, it comes with assurances that the broad membership of the W3C's HTML Working Group has carefully scrutinized it. Second, it brings patent protections: the group's members agree that they won't sue anyone for building technology that uses the standard. That's not insignificant given the working group's breadth. It includes browser makers Apple, Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, and Opera; software maker Adobe and SAP; Chinese search giant Baidu; video companies such as HBO, Netflix and the BBC; hardware companies such as Samsung, Sony, Intel, Nokia, Huawei, IBM and Ericsson; and network operators such as Comcast and Orange.

Those patent protections may be lawyer-intensive issues most programmers would just as soon ignore, but many W3C members want those assurances, said Paul Cotton, a Microsoft employee who is co-chairman of the HTML Working Group. Take the example of Canvas, which lets programmers draw two-dimensional shapes like stock charts in Web pages.

"Canvasshipped very early in Safari," Apple's browser, Cotton said, and standards writers have settled it down into a widely used specification on the Web. "But we still don't have a royalty-free version. It'll only be when we get a stable, royalty-free version of Canvas that we know for sure it can be freely implemented without worrying about any patents Apple has in that space, because they'll be obligated to license them royalty-free."

New features and the URL fracas

But who will chart the future features for the Web? The W3C is working on HTML 5.1 now, which includes some features still deemed too immature for HTML5. That includes Canvas and drag-and-drop, which lets people take actions like dragging file icons onto an upload target to attach photos to an email.

But that's what the WHATWG is working on, too.

"Overall we seem to be collecting one or two new specs each year," said Ian "Hixie" Hickson, a WHATWG founding member who's overseen its version of the HTML standard for years. He's a Google employee, but he acts independently -- for example in his strong disagreement with the Chrome team's decision to support the W3C's Encrypted Media Extensions technology to make it possible to use copy-protection-enabling digital rights management (DRM) with HTML5 video.

One example of WHATWG's new scope is the arrival of the specification for a seemingly obvious part of the Web, the Web address called the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator. Different browsers decode in different ways all the punctuation and other coding that creeps into Web addresses, and a Mozilla employee, Anne van Kesteren, is trying to boil all the behavior down into a single set of rules through WHATWG.

One hitch: there are other versions of the URL spec, muddying the waters for anyone who wants to know how the technology should work. The W3C's HTML standard refers to one of them, a 2012 W3C draft version of the URL spec, as the version that should be followed. But the W3C's page for that URL spec also points to a copy of the WHATWG's version, calling it the "latest editor's draft."

"The real problem is of course that the W3C is still copying our work even after we asked them to stop doing that," van Kesteren said. It's legal, but "oftentimes it comes pretty close [to] or is actual plagiarism."

It's one of many instances of copying, Hickson said. "For reasons that defy my understanding, the W3C staff refuse to treat the WHATWG as a peer organization" that relies on WHATWG's work, he said. Instead, it creates its own copies of some standards. "They'll eventually say they have a 'final' version, and then they'll stop fixing bugs. It's very sad."

There's a lot of overlap among W3C and WHATWG participants, but Jaffe -- who goes out of his way to praise Hickson's work as "the key architect" on HTML5 -- knows there is friction. The W3C's relationship with WHATWG is OK, not perfect, but Jaffe isn't spoiling for a fight. "From my perspective, there's no animosity," he said.

Regarding accusations of copying, Jaffe said the W3C is continuing from joint work that began when Hickson was editing the HTML standard for both WHATWG and W3C for a time. The URL standard issue, though, isn't resolved yet, he said.

"In the case of HTML, we reached an agreement with WHATWG a long time ago, I think 2008, to work jointly with them on HTML5. For a period of time Hixie was editing both versions of the spec. I don't think there's any real issue with the fact that we continued the partnership as we jointly agreed to a few years ago," Jaffe said. "There's been a recent issue raised about the URL spec, and I think that still needs to be worked out."

Jaffe, Cotton and the W3C are trying to move faster so, like the WHATWG's "living document' approach to standards, they're more in tune with the software world in which products are continuously updated. That speed comes from a shift to more smaller, more modular specifications; a streamlined process for standardization; and the embrace of "community groups" where interested parties can quickly tackle new technologies. But the W3C isn't yielding on its core the idea that the world needs a "stable" standard.

Take the case of a TV maker building a chip-based technology into a chip. "If you're going to burn an HTML5 browser into silicon, you want to have something that is reasonably stable," Cotton said. "You want a good idea that features in it are interoperable and not experimental. That's basically the heart of the friction that occurs between the WHATWG and W3C."

Dueling standards and the browser veto

When there are two versions of a spec, what's a programmer to do? There's no one answer. "Generally we tell developers to look at the WHATWG version, which tends to be developed with better technical accuracy," advised Mozilla Chief Technology Officer Andreas Gal.

"If you want to see what's already implemented in browsers now, look at W3C spec," said Opera's Lawson. "If you want to see what might be coming (or how things may change) look at WHATWG spec."

It's smart to look to the browser makers' developer sites for advice, though, since they hold the ultimate power of what happens on the Web. If they don't like a particular standard, regardless of who crafted it, they can modify or omit it. And many new standards start as browser makers' ideas of what needs doing.

One example concerns whether video streams sent with DRM must be encrypted. Netflix's Mark Watson, a co-editor of the DRM video standard, argued Sunday at W3C that encryption brings too many technical difficulties and that consensus-based standards should take that sort of concern into account. But Ryan Sleevi, who works on Chrome's encryption and a related Web standard, said browser makers prioritize privacy regardless of what a particular standard says, consensus or not.

"A spec that fails to take in the concerns of [browser makers], regardless of how much consensus it has among [non-browser makers], is a spec that isn't implemented," Sleevi said. And making reference to the original split between browser makers and the W3C that spawned the WHATWG a decade ago, he said, "This has been the case time and time again."

Correction, 11:14 a.m. PT: This story misstated the proper name of the stage in HTML standardization process and a detail on W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe's blog post on application foundations. The release of the final version of HTML5 is a step formally called a "recommendation," and Jaffe's blog post called for improvements in eight areas to make Web technologies more competitive.

Correction, 3:30 p.m. PT: This story misstated the version of the URL standard to which the W3C's HTML5 standard refers. It refers to a draft URL standard from the W3C as the one to be followed. However, the W3C also also makes a secondary reference to a copy of the WHATWG's URL standard.