HTML5: Can the center hold?

As work progresses on the next-generation markup language, ongoing disagreements call to question the ideal of a truly standards-compliant Web

The W3C is steadily moving toward a final specification of HTML5, and with its emphasis on multimedia and interactive content, the new standard is already being hailed as a potential Flash and Silverlight killer. Unfortunately, however, universal agreement on the new standard still seems far off. Earlier this month, Microsoft stepped up its activity in the HTML5 standardization process, submitting a new list of concerns regarding various proposed features across the specification.

For Microsoft to start nitpicking now may seem ironic, since Internet Explorer has long been considered the worst offender when it comes to poor Web standards compliance. IE6 is a particular thorn in Web developers' sides; although its standards support is woefully inadequate, it still commands as much as 27 percent of the overall browser market. Some developers have gone so far as to mount a "kill IE6" campaign in hopes of eliminating the offender. Nonetheless, Microsoft insists it is committed to supporting IE6 through 2014, when Windows XP becomes officially obsolete.

[ InfoWorld's Paul Krill asks: Could HTML5 kill Flash and Silverlight? | Keep up with app dev issues and trends with InfoWorld's Fatal Exception and Strategic Developer ]

So if Web developers are stuck with the prospect of at least five more years of Web-standards Babel, what is all this work on HTML5 is really worth? Can we really expect a universally accepted standard for rich Web content anytime soon, or is the ideal of a truly standards-based Web just a pipe dream?

The long and winding road to Web standards
For the last few years, HTML 4 and XHTML 1.1 have represented the state of the art in Web markup, but the future of the standards has long been contentious. The groundwork of HTML5 was actually laid outside the W3C by a consortium called the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group (WHATWG), whose members were dissatisfied with the W3C's proposed direction of XHTML 2. WHATWG eventually got its way: In July 2009, W3C officially announced it was abandoning the XHTML 2 effort in favor of HTML5.

Almost simultaneously, W3C also gave up on specifying codec support for the new standard's <video> tag. Some argued that all browsers could easily support free, open source codecs such as Ogg Vorbis and Theora, and that support for standardized multimedia could free Web video sites such as YouTube from reliance on proprietary plug-ins. But in the end, the members of the consortium couldn't agree. It seems multimedia is simply too contentious an area for a standards body such as the W3C -- especially when major participants each have their own horses in the race, in the form of Flash, QuickTime, and Windows Media.

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