File Under: Web Basics

This Spec Has a Posse: ‘Superfriends’ Suggest Changes for HTML5

We’re excited about the coming improvements in HTML5, and with just about every new browser release there’s more support for HTML5 out there in the wilds of the web. But just because HTML5 is heavily anticipated, it doesn’t mean the spec is perfect. In fact, more than a few details regarding HTML5 have left us scratching our heads.

Turns out we’re not alone. Web design and standards guru Jeffery Zeldman recently convened a group of prominent web developers — dubbed the HTML5 Superfriends — and came up with a list of “hiccups” in the current HTML5 spec.

“Hiccups” is a generous word. More accurately, the shortcomings the group is pointing out are where HTML5, in its current form, could end up failing web developers and, by extension, users.

The HTML5 specification, which is still in draft form, is the long-awaited update to the markup code that forms the underlying structure of web pages and browser-based applications. HTML5 promises things like more powerful web-based apps, more flexible and human-readable page layouts, the ability to automatically find a user’s location and the ability to embed video, audio and complex animations in web pages without plug-ins.

The larger specification is being written by a group of invited experts, but a group (called the WHATWG) is working in tandem with the web’s governing body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), to actively address issues specific to web browsers. All of the major browser makers, as well as several makers of other pieces of software which are integral to presenting rich media on the web such as Flash and Quicktime, are currently hashing out the details of what will be included in the final spec (and what won’t) on the WHATWG’s public mailing list.

Jeffrey Zeldman is famous for creating the A List Apart tutorial website and authoring several well-known books about web design. Zeldman and his group of “Superfriends” — the group also includes microformats advocate Tantek elik, web standards evangelist Aaron Gustafson and CSS guru Eric Meyer — are hoping to influence the W3C and the WHATWG by raising the level of public debate around HTML5 with their public manifesto.

The Superfriends’ list of grievances happens to be nearly identical to our own list of complaints, addressing everything from the seemingly arbitrary limitations and restrictions for the <header> tag, to the potential redundancy of the <article> and <section> tags. Other issues, like providing syntax checkers for both HTML and XHTML code, are also covered.

But we’re not just applauding the Superfriends’ hiccup guide simply because we happen to agree with most of it. We like it because it raises some issues and points out some potential problems in the current specification that we hadn’t considered before.

Consider, for example, the new time element. What do you do if you want to markup a span of time rather than a specific date? While the time element covers the basic “this day in history” use case, it won’t work for anything more complex. Here’s the example Zeldman and crew offer:

We are also imagining an application that might input Wikipedia data and output an annotated visual timeline. For movements or trends rather than events, it would need to output rough dates and date ranges like 2001-2003, rather than exact dates. This may require extending the time element, or perhaps some compound markup that uses one or more time elements.

One of the things we really like about the HTML5 Superfriends’ critique is that the group has some workable solutions for most of their complaints. In the case of the time element they propose allowing the time element’s datetime attribute “to accept standard year values and month-day values, both of which are allowed by ISO8601: YYYY and –MM-DD respectively.”

Other elements the group suggest revisiting or tweeking include cite, dialog and good old div.

So are any of these suggestion going to happen? Well, the good news is that HTML5 is still very much a work in progress and the WHATWG is constantly making revisions and changes.

The other important thing to note, lest you think Zeldman and friends are simply a vocal minority, is that the WHATWG’s priorities are to web users and developers over implementers like browser makers.

In other words, the Superfriends are exactly the people that the WHATWG wants to hear from. And keep in mind that you don’t need to be a web design celebrity to participate in the process. In fact, anyone can join in creating the future of HTML5. So if there’s something you don’t understand or thing could be made better, head on over and join the WHATWG mailing list or start hanging out the IRC channel (that link requires an IRC client).

Eventually we’re hoping HTML5 can help create a better, more useful web. But in order for that to happen, the WHATWG needs to hear from all of us.

Screen grab by factoryjoe/Flickr

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