Go away, kid, you bother me: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla kick W3C nerds to the curb

Web standards body dressed down in spec spat

Microsoft, Apple, Google OS logos

The organization that tries to advance web technology standards – the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C – has run into a roadblock: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla.

Earlier this week, the four major browser makers expressed dissatisfaction with the W3C's DOM 4.1 specification, which defines a variety of new capabilities associated with the Document Object Model, through which web documents are described.

The specification – which is on its way to the Candidate Recommendation (CR) stage, a step in the process before formal approval – only has meaning if it is implemented in web browsers. And that's no longer a given.

The four formal objections to advancing the spec, filed as GitHub issues, underscore the fact the W3C no longer sets the web standards agenda.

That responsibility has shifted to the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), a splinter group formed in 2004 by individuals from Apple, Mozilla, and Opera in response to the W3C's sluggish approach to standards development.

WHATWG has seen its influence grow over the years to eclipse the W3C, at least in terms of browser technology. As Mozilla principal engineer David Baron explained in 2014, "When the W3C's and WHATWG's HTML specifications differ, we tend to follow the WHATWG one."

With the W3C advancing DOM 4.1 to CR status, the organization's dwindling clout has become apparent. The browsers made by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla account for more than 90 per cent of mobile and of desktop market share by some measures. If they act together, the technology they support becomes a de facto standard; and the technology they ignore is left in limbo.

That's where the W3C's DOM 4.1 proposal is now stuck.

Dead end

"[T]he current document cannot possibly exit [Candidate Recommendation], since no browser engine intends to implement it," said Apple WebKit engineer Maciej Stachowiak in voicing Apple's objection.

The problem for Apple, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla is that the W3C has forked the DOM 4.1 specification, making it differ from the WHATWG specification.

Therein lie compatibility problems. If browser makers continue to implement the WHATWG rules and encounter webpages build with W3C-approved DOM 4.1 tech, there will be blood, or at least mild annoyance when webpages fail to function properly.

"[T]he existence of different DOM standards creates pain for our engineers and customers," said Michael Champion, senior program manager for Microsoft, in outlining his employer's objections.

The W3C has more than 450 other members, but in the context of browsers, these other companies are largely bystanders. Nonetheless, many want a voice in shaping web technology and they pay for that privilege.

Last year, in a Reddit post, Ian Hickson, editor of the WHATWG spec and a Google engineer, offered his take on the differences between WHATWG and W3C.

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Where WHATWG values technical precision, he said, the W3C "is an organization supported by large annual fees from large companies, and its primary organizational goal is to ensure these companies remain as paying members."

Hickson pointed to the W3C's approach to digital restrictions rights management (DRM aka Encrypted Media Extensions) – something opposed by many in the web community, but supported by W3C members with substantial interests in copyrighted content.

"DRM is a technology that is literally impossible to implement," he wrote. "Any DRM solution will always be broken, because there's just no way to simultaneously let someone decrypt content and prevent them from decrypting content, however much you obfuscate the keys. The W3C, however, is all-in on DRM, because by doing this they got a bunch of companies to join as members who wouldn't otherwise have had a reason to join."

The Register asked the W3C for comment but has not heard back. ®

Updated to add

In a statement, a W3C spokesperson told us:

The DOM specification was originated at W3C, with the first version being completed on October 1, 1998. W3C Members supported chartering the current Web Platform WG on August 3, 2017 to continue the work and develop standards for various specs including DOM 4.1. That work is continuing and the WG is currently debating the timing for transition to Candidate Recommendation. Several members have objected to moving forward this month and the WG Chairs are studying those objections.

In December 2017, the WHATWG (which has its own version of the DOM specification) announced a new Workmode for themselves. W3C noted in a blog post that they had met with the new WHATWG Steering Group and that they will work together to build a stronger partnership. Those discussions are still ongoing, and are being pursued in a parallel path to the spec work in WPWG.

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