File Under: Ajax, HTML

Same as it Ever Was: The History of HTML is a Conversation, Not a Spec

Developer Mark Pilgrim has posted a fascinating look at how the HTML img tag came into existence. The history Pilgrim digs up — mailing list conversations between the creators of the first web browsers like Marc Andreessen and the webs early pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee — show that far from being a carefully planned specification, the lingua franca of the web evolved a bit like the early universe — out of a murky chaos.

That from the chaos we got a workable — some would argue good — solution for creating the web is proof on some level that conversations and not abstracts, proposals and design by committee are the key to HTML’s success.

As Pilgrim writes:

HTML has always been a conversation between browser makers, authors, standards wonks, and other people who just showed up and liked to talk about angle brackets. Most of the successful versions of HTML have been “retro-specs,” catching up to the world while simultaneously trying to nudge it in the right direction.

You might be wondering, why did img succeed where other proposals, like an include or an icon tag failed? The answer is simple, because Marc Andreessen shipped code — Netscape Navigator — while those backing the other proposals, for most part, did not.

Of course that doesn’t mean that just shipping code is always good plan. Shipping code before a standard doesn’t necessarily produce the best solutions, as Pilgrim says. Or, put another way by a commentator on Pilgrim’s post, “shipping doesn’t mean you win, but not shipping means you lose.”

From those who shipped without the official blessing of a standard, we’ve come to have an img tag, the basis for AJAX, all of the HTML5 tools available in browsers today and much more.

Critics of HTML’s disorganized evolution will be quick to note that we’ve also come to have the blink tag, cross-browser rendering issues and other pains of web development.

Indeed we’re not suggesting that shipping features without at least engaging in the conversation is a good idea, but, when it comes to the future of HTML, if browser makers don’t ship HTML5 features before the standard is official we’ll be waiting until 2022 to use the new tools.

But while the future of HTML5 might be moving at a rather slow and convoluted pace. Pilgrim’s post is reminder that HTML has always progressed that way.

Perhaps the truly remarkable part is that, for all its flaws and convoluted evolution the core tech behind the web remains essentially the same now as it was then. “HTML is an unbroken line… a twisted, knotted, snarled line, to be sure… but still… Here we are, in 2009, and web pages from 1990 still render in modern browsers.”

See Also: