By Noah | April 16, 2009
Sam Ruby, recently appointed as co-chair of the W3C HTML Working Group, is starting to explore directions for unifying HTML 5 and XHTML. For anyone who cares about Web technology or HTML, Sam’s posting is highly recommended. There’s also a very interesting discussion going on in the comments section.
For those who don’t follow such things in detail, here’s a bit of background, though there’s enough controversy about this that almost any summary is bound to upset someone. HTML is of course the core technology for creating Web pages. So, it’s very important that everyone who creates Web pages, or the tools that help create pages, and everyone who builds Web browsers, agrees on what’s legal in HTML, and what every legal HTML page means. For better or worse, browsers have since the beginning also helpfully tried to present something reasonable even when the pages they receive aren’t strictly legal, and so there’s also value in setting down the rules for doing that.
Unfortunately, splits have arisen in the communities that manage the specifications for HTML. One branch of work has for years gone forward at the W3C under the banner of XHTML, which brings much of the power of XML to Web pages. It creates a rich framework in which lots of people can add features to HTML, and indeed many such features have been proposed. On the other hand, XHTML is in some ways brittle and inconvenient; it’s a less forgiving framework for dealing with pages that aren’t quite legal, and it also can be clumsier to write by hand. Partly in frustration with these concerns, a separate group called WHAT WG sprang up awhile ago, and they too have been writing specifications for a future version of HTML, called HTML 5. The pros and cons are way beyond what I can discuss here, but I think it’s fair to say that HTML 5 tries hard to document what browsers actually do, and to specify a version of HTML that is in some ways less extensible or XML-compatible than XHTML, but which is often easier to write. Along the way, the WHAT WG agreed to affiliate itself with the W3C, so there are currently two W3C HTML groups running in parallel: the HTML working group is moving forward with WHAT WG to build the HTML 5 specification, while the XHTML group is working on features that use XHTML as a base.
In short, HTML is obviously a key technology for the Web, and many people in the Web community are troubled by the split that has arisen. Sam was brought in as co-chair of the HTML working group in part to help bring everyone together. His posting sets out some of his initial ideas on how to do that.