HTML: The standard that failed?

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

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By 2008 the W3C, still unable to move forward on XHTML 2.0, accepted WHATWG's independent work as a new draft specification, to be known as HTML5. The main goal of the new standard was to evolve HTML from a simple hypertext document format into a standard better suited to modern Internet applications. That sentiment resonated with the broader Web development community, and by 2009 the W3C decided to drop its work on XHTML 2.0 and concentrate on finalizing HTML5 as the next major iteration of the Web standard.

But for the W3C to say it's doing something and to actually do it are two different things. Work on HTML5 has continued ... and continued ... and still goes on to this day. The standard is not expected to be finalized until next year at the earliest.

Nobody ever said drafting industry standards was easy. But in the meantime, browser vendors -- eager to showcase the most talked-about features of the new spec -- have resorted to implementing half-baked ideas and incomplete specifications, often in inconsistent ways. Most famously, the HTML5 committee gave up trying to specify codecs for the much-anticipated <video> tag when no consensus could be reached, leaving each browser vendor to support whichever video formats it saw fit.

No version control
That's exactly the point of giving up version numbering for HTML, says Google's Ian Hickson, a WHATWG member and current editor of the HTML5 specification. "Most of the [objections] seem to be based on the misconception that browsers target a particular version of the spec, possibly even targeting one version before moving on to the next," Hickson wrote in a comment posted to the WHATWG blog. "That's not the case. Browsers always follow the latest draft, because that's where all the bugs have been fixed."

Doubtless that's true. If I were implementing a browser today, I'd concentrate my efforts on supporting the latest version of the standard. I'd have to if I hoped to compete with Apple, Google, Mozilla, and Opera Software. What Hickson seems to be ignoring, however, is that not everybody who has a stake in HTML is a browser vendor.

Browser vendors might aim to support whichever version of the standard is current, but they have to ship their products sometime. Once they do, their customers will end up with a browser that supports some form of HTML as it was specified at some point in time. Without so much as a version number to go by, it will be virtually impossible for the customer to understand -- or even express -- just what form of HTML that actually is.

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