HTML: The standard that failed?

HTML is officially whatever the top browser vendors say it is at the moment. You call that a standard?

HTML is a standard dictated by browser vendors -- not an independent body.

That seems to be the message from the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), which last week announced that it would be dropping version numbering from the HTML specification once work on HTML5 is complete. Henceforth, HTML will become a "living standard," with the most current version of the specification being the one maintained on the group's website. In other words, the standard is whatever WHATWG says it is this week.

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Technically anyone can participate in the HTML standardization process, via WHATWG's mailing list. But those who do so are known as "contributors," and their role is much like that of concerned citizens at a city council meeting. Actual membership in the WHATWG is an elite affair, however, and is by invitation only. Currently the total membership consists of three representatives from the Mozilla Foundation, two from Opera Software, two from Apple, one from Google, and one independent developer.

In effect, that's who's deciding the future of the Web: four of the leading Web browser vendors, all of whom have incentive to pile ever more features into their products to compete with alternative RIA (rich Internet application) platforms such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. (If you're wondering where Internet Explorer fits into all this, notice that Microsoft is not a WHATWG member.) What's more, Apple and Google are both prominent providers of Web content. But hey -- surely they all have our best interests at heart, right?

HTML5: A long time coming
WHATWG was founded for good reason. The last formal HTML specification from the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) was XHTML 1.1, published in 2001. XHTML was intended to be the natural successor to HTML, with an XHTML 2.0 standard to follow soon after. But that effort became mired in committee, and the W3C was effectively silent for three years -- a virtual lifetime by IT standards. WHATWG began as an ad hoc consortium of Web technology companies aimed at breaking that silence.

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