File Under: HTML, HTML5, Web Standards

Two HTML Standards Diverge in a Wood

The two standards bodies that are jointly responsible for developing the HTML specification have cut the final tie that was binding them together.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) began to move apart last year when the WHATWG announced it would drop the version number and work on a “living standard” sans version numbers. The W3C continued to focus on HTML “snapshots” like HTML5.

However, despite that split the two shared an editor, Ian Hickson, who oversees both specs. Or did. In an e-mail to the WHATWG mailing list, Hickson announced that he is no longer the editor of the W3C HTML WG spec. The change isn’t unexpected; in fact Hickson announced it would happen over a year ago, but it does emphasize the growing distance between the two standards.

“The WHATWG effort is focused on developing the canonical description of HTML,” writes Hickson on the mailing list. “The W3C effort, meanwhile, is now focused on creating a snapshot developed according to the venerable W3C process.”

With different goals for each version of the spec Hickson says that “the chairs of the W3C HTML working group and myself decid[ed] to split the work into two, with a different person responsible for editing the W3C HTML5, canvas, and microdata specifications than is editing the WHATWG specification.”

Now, more than ever before there seems to be two versions of HTML. The question for developers is, what does this mean for the future of HTML? In the short term, very little.

The W3C will continue to develop its fixed-in-time snapshot of HTML5 and the WHATWG will keep going with the “living standard” approach. What some developers fear is that down the road the two specs will diverge in significant ways and HTML will become a messy set of forked standards and varying browser support that lands us back in the bad old days of IE 6.

Anything is possible, but we remain hopeful that that won’t happen, at least in part because the W3C standard is more of a branch than a fork.

If all goes well the process will remain essentially as it has been for the last few years: a browser adds some shiny new feature, the WHATWG documents it and other browsers implement their own versions. There’s an awkward, sometimes frustrating period for web developers while browsers tweak and refine their support, but eventually the dust settles and a new standard is added to the W3C’s version. It may not be a completely ideal process, but it is what’s managed to bring us this far.