Programming - - By Kevin Yank

HTML’s Uncertain Future

The following is republished from the Tech Times #152.

What would you change if you were in charge of the next version of HTML? Would you add new tags for things that you need to mark up in your documents? Would you remove tags that you never use? What makes a good HTML tag, and how do you accommodate specific needs that don’t justify adding tags to HTML?

All of these questions have been asked and answered by members of the W3C, but not all of the answers have stood the test of time. In a landmark blog post late last month, W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee acknowledged that XHTML has failed to deliver on the promise of well-formed, extensible markup, mainly because browsers continued to process good old “tag soup” HTML without complaint.

As a result of this, he announced that the W3C would revise its approach to HTML, starting with a new working group to resume development of the long-abandoned HTML specification. This group will add new features to HTML and XHTML in parallel, operating independently from continued efforts to develop the next version of XHTML.

If we can expect one thing to come out of this, it’s a range of new W3C-endorsed HTML tags. And disagreement has already sprung up over just what those tags should be.

On the one hand, the W3C itself has been toiling in obscurity on XHTML 2.0, which makes recommendations that are at turns reasonable, controversial, and strange.

Meanwhile, frustrated parties that tired of the W3C’s insistence on the Web being a medium for documents (to the exclusion of applications) formed the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHAT WG) to begin work on a new version of HTML that they call, confusingly, “HTML 5” even though it’s made up of two specifications: Web Applications 1.0 and Web Forms 2.0. These specs contain their own set of recommendations for new HTML tags, some of which have even begun to see adoption in the latest browsers.

Though these issues have been simmering for years, Tim Berners-Lee’s announcement has reignited the conversation. Some influential members of the community have begun to post their wish lists, others have questioned the W3C’s track record of selecting sensible additions to HTML, and still others have rallied against this perceived step backwards, calling for a renewed focus on XHTML.

What isn’t at all clear at this stage is what involvement, if any, the WHAT WG will have with this new effort to develop HTML within the W3C. Berners-Lee’s announcement only made an indirect reference to the group’s work, acknowledging that Web Forms 2.0 would “inform” the W3C’s new work on forms in HTML.

Disappointingly (for the W3C), the WHAT WG has made the first meaningful move following Berners-Lee’s announcement, posting an invitation for web developers to share their ideas, needs, and questions about the future of HTML. Not wanting to get left out of the process, it seems the group is eager to demonstrate its willingness to involve the developer community at large—something the W3C has consistently failed to do.

The idealist in me wonders if the WHAT WG might find a natural fit as the voice of the developer community within the W3C. If the W3C can’t forge a meaningful link with developers in the trenches, maybe the WHAT WG can. This would require funding to pay for W3C membership fees and the time of the people involved, but private donations and contributions from professional organizations might go a long way towards this.

In the end, it will be years before the effects of these announcements are felt in the day-to-day work of developers, but I need to agree with the WHAT WG here: if there is to be a new beginning for HTML, it will require our involvement in the process now, at the beginning, to ensure this isn’t just another false start.

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