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WHAT’s going on?

By Simon Willison

The last week has seen some very interesting developments in the web standards community, triggered by the W3C’s recent Workshop on Web Applications and Compound Documents in San Jose. The workshop was a gathering of around 50 people with an interest in the future of the web as a platform, with each participant having to submit a “position paper” prior to attending. The position papers are all available online, but the paper most relevant to this discussion is the joint paper submitted by Opera and the Mozilla Foundation. Here are the opening paragraphs:

We consider Web Applications to be an important area that has not been adequately served by existing technologies.

There is a rising threat of single-vendor solutions addressing this problem before jointly-developed specifications. To compete with other players in this field, user agents with initial implementations of jointly-developed specifications should ideally be shipping before the end of the year 2004.

The rest of the document goes on to describe their proposed approach to tackling the problem, with the most interesting aspect being a dedication to keeping everything backwards compatible with IE 6, which is certain to stick around in a majority role for the next few years at least.

It all makes a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, the idea was shot down in flames at the workshop. Ian Hickson’s (a co-author of the proposal) post-mortem suggests that the problem lay in the large number of plugin and server-side technology vendors present at the workshop – a proportion that reflects W3C membership trends as a whole. It seems that the W3C just isn’t interested in extending the abilities of existing web technologies, preferring to introduce new innovations with future standards such as XHTML 2 and CSS 3.

The problem is that HTML 4 is alive, kicking and desperately in need of improvements. Internet Explorer will be with us in its present form for many years to come, and is very unlikely to lose much ground to other browsers no matter how superior they are from a technical perspective. Meanwhile, the spectre of XAML (Microsoft’s new all-singing all-dancing XML based interface language) threatens to pollute the web with platform-specific applications in a few year’s time. It’s not hard to read between the lines and see XAML, and maybe Flash, as the “single-vendor solutions” indicated in the quoted paragraphs above.

The proposed solution to this quagmire is WHAT WG, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group. Announced just a few days ago, the group “aims to develop specifications based on HTML and related technologies to ease the deployment of interoperable Web Applications, with the intention of submitting the results to a standards organisation”. The plan seems to be to develop new extensions to HTML 4 in an open environment, while avoiding breaking backwards compatible with the ever-present Internet Explorer. This group is no fly-by night organisation of hot-headed web nerds: the current membership includes key representatives of the Mozilla, Opera and Safari browser teams, most of whom have experience working on W3C specifications. They’re running an open mailing list and already have an initial draft document for Web Applications Markup Language 1.0, their first proposed specification.

It’s hard to under-state the importance of all this. If you’ve been frustrated by the slow rate of innovation in the modern web, you need to check these guys out. It’s an open process so there’s nothing to stop you from getting involved, and with support from three out of four of the major browser manufacturers (and acknowledgement from Tantek

  • Michael Day

    I think that the web will continue to fracture into three broad technology platforms for application development, but only the direction taken by WHAT-WG appears pragmatic enough to work for the public web rather than just corporate intranets.

  • Tom

    I think that more and more people are getting frustrated with the W3C and their inability to move things forward. This is the impression that I have and it is only solidified by reading this. We have do deal with what is around NOW – not only what comes next. We need a plan for the next 5 years and there simply doesn’t appear to be one.

    My impressions could be wrong – and if they are – that is also their fault.

  • Rob

    Is it really an issue with the W3C (or only the W3C at fault)? Surely the major goliaths that have a lot to gain by non-standards approaches have a lot of clout in and outside of the W3C…?

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