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HTML 5 gets forked up

Judean People's Front and People's Front of Judea go their own way

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Splitters! That's the cry which may well be echoing out across the web in coming days, as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) have decided to pursue their common agenda of a marvellous new standard for the web by doing things differently.

The split seems amicable, as detailed by Ian “Hixie” Hickson of WHATWG in a mailing list post:

The WHATWG effort is focused on developing the canonical description of HTML and related technologies, meaning fixing bugs as we find them [1], adding new features as they become necessary and viable, and generally tracking implementations. The W3C effort, meanwhile, is now focused on creating a snapshot developed according to the venerable W3C process. This led to the chairs of the W3C HTML working group and myself deciding to split the work into two, with a different person responsible for editing the W3C HTML5, canvas, and microdata specifications than is editing the WHATWG specification (me).

The practical effect of the split is that the W3C will continue to work towards an official standard for HTML 5. WHATWG will plough ahead with its own “Living Standard” that pushes HTML 5 into the world regardless of the the state of the W3C's efforts.

At first glance the split looks dangerous: browser-makers and developers who lived through the nineties and early noughties remember only too well the pain of non-standard HTML. The split may also become a useful wedge for the likes of Adobe, who recently pointed out to your correspondent that Flash looks like a stable and predictable development environment compared to the as-yet-unratified HTML 5.

Happily, the WHATWG's roster of members mean weirdo versions of HTML seem unlikely to happen this time: Apple, Mozilla and Opera are all aboard and formed the WHATWG to speed up the development of HTML 5 because they felt the W3C was moving too slowly. With Google relying on the same Webkit layout engine as Apple's Safari, it seems likely the text ad giant will therefore be adopting the same WHATWG-derived HTML 5 goodness Apple coaxes into existence. Among major browser and development players that leaves Microsoft, which of course has ancient form doing all sorts of nasty things to HTML and browsers. Redmond has, of late, been much more interested in standards and has even made sure its own applications can be enjoyed using third-party browsers.

Which is not to say that the web community won't be a little worried about this: Hickson admits in the message we've linked to above that he's about six months behind on bug-fixing chores. WHATWG's website also includes a few heart-stopping moments, such as its definition of a Living Standard as entailing:

“... standards that are continuously updated as they receive feedback, either from Web designers, browser vendors, tool vendors, or indeed any other interested party. It also means that new features get added to them over time, at a rate intended to keep the specifications a little ahead of the implementations but not so far ahead that the implementations give up.”

If that's got you spooked, the answer to the next FAQ, “Does that mean the specification can change at any time?” may calm you down:

"The specification does not change arbitrarily: we are extremely careful! As parts of the specification mature, and implementations ship, the spec cannot be changed in backwards-incompatible ways (because the implementors would never agree to break compatibility unless for security reasons). The specification is never complete, since the Web is continuously evolving. The last time HTML was described as "complete" was after HTML4, when development stopped for several years, leading to stagnation. (If the Web is replaced by something better and dies, the HTML spec will die with it.)"

All of which leaves just one question: what has the W3C ever done for us? ®

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