June 22, 2009

Why saying 'HTML5 is not a standard' matters


(Repost of comment on W3C blog)

Let's focus on the goal: insuring that everyone "on the web" can reliably communicate. HTML was intended to be the "common language" that every device, browser, computer could read and interpret, even though there are other languages and systems and formats and features. Increasing the capabilities of the common language to include "web applications" is an important subsidiary goal, as long as the original purpose of HTML isn't lost.

It is important to avoid the tragedy of the commons, where individuals and organizations acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource. The "commons" is "global interoperability".

W3C provides a forum where organizations that might otherwise be in competition can get together and agree on a common technical goals -- one that they all agree to implement -- and to document that agreement in a way that anyone who wishes to can participate in interoperability. I don't think the quibbles about "Standard" vs "Recommendation" matter. It's critical, though, that whatever is documented and published (and promoted as a "standard") actually represents agreement.

I don't see how it is helpful if the status of the agreement of the participants is obscured. Calling something a "standard" (even if qualified as "under development") before there is agreement doesn't distinguish between "proposed but not agreed", "agreed but incomplete", or even "agreed, but document not finished". How does this help reach agreement?

Is shipping an implementation of a proposal before there is agreement helpful? Perhaps as a way of resolving disagreement by "fait accompli", but if different vendors ship different, incompatible versions of their own interpretation of the "draft standard", that would be counter-productive. If vendors ship implementations and call them "standard", but in the end the feature doesn't ever become standard -- doesn't this encourage users to create content that only works in some browsers and not others? It becomes another instance of "best viewed by".

I can't see how continuing independent tracks of web development (one for browsers and another for XHTML/XML/SVG-based workflows) can evolve into a single web useful for all.

Whether something is called a "Standard" or not doesn't matter as much as whether doing so helps or hinders where we need to go. Let's focus on that.


  1. That is why, as a developer, I am very much deterred from building any real website using HTML5.

  2. People deploy real production systems using non-standard technology all the time. Real websites use ActiveX controls, Adobe Flash, Oracle Java, and any number of "non-standard" technologies.

    I think site designers need to "do what they have to do". I'm just opposed to misleading statements about the status... calling something a "Standard" (or even a "Living Standard") when there hasn't been any agreement.