February 12, 2010

HTML5 and W3C Focus (10/2008)


I sent the email below to the W3C members-only mailing list w3c-ac-forum@w3.org on 14 October 2008, as part of a discussion about HTML management. It might be a little dated, but maybe it will explain a bit where I'm coming from.

Note added 2/28/2010:

By “the expansion of W3C activities outside the core of the web” I did not mean style sheets, video, 2D or 3D graphics, HTTP, URLs and all the various URL schemes, web security, which are all at the core of the web. Web applications too! But of the W3C list of activities and publications, some are pretty far away from the "core of the web" as most know "the web", and even if relevant and visionary, but they're not on the trajectory of "the web" as it is being deployed.

"Leadership is the skill of getting others to follow": get out in front, but not so far in front they can't see you, and certainly not chasing after them with waggling fingers.

From: Larry Masinter
To: w3c-ac-forum@w3.org
Subject: HTML5 and W3C Focus
Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2008 23:47:15 -0700

To make some progress on the HTML5 situation, I think it's important to look at the general principles of standards-making, and not get too focused on the specifics of the individuals and their personalities. Certainly, just changing the players without addressing the process issues isn't constructive.

Good standards are hard and take time. Many people are frustrated with the standards process and would like to short-circuit the procedures, especially when the official process yields a specification which doesn't address their needs (as happened with XHTML). Many standards efforts do not succeed because the process of developing the specification ignored the needs of critical constituents in the effort to get "something" soon.

The web has many constituents, not just browser implementors. These include end users who depend on the web functioning smoothly and interoperably, but also authors, makers of authoring tools, dynamic web content generation tools, search engines, machine translation services, content management systems, advertisers, IT managers concerned with web security, publishers, government agencies wanting to publish information on the web that is universally accessible, publishers supporting multi-lingual information, gateways and translators to and from web content to print, etc., etc.

The design of HTML matters to each of those constituents, and changes that favor one category may adversely impact another; for example, the more expressive something is, the harder it is to analyze or translate.

Any single individual (editor or chair) may be committed to giving everyone a fair hearing, but it is impossible for any one person to comprehend all of the requirements and the impact that any change or addition might have to the web on all of those constituents. It is inevitable that they internalize the requirements of those they talk to the most, depending on their organization and place in it. With a complex, highly structured, and interdependent technology, it is unreasonable to expect that a small set of individuals who mainly represent a subset of one constituent ("browser implementors primarily concerned with new mobile platforms") to fully carry out the analysis and design work without substantial additional review.

Making changes or additions to HTML, and encouraging content creators to use additional features where universal acceptance is not likely is irresponsible, because it fragments the web, and encourages creation of content which only works for some people and not others. The chaos of the browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape was very damaging, and recovery is not yet complete; we should work to avoid a repeat.

Allowing a small specialized design committee to proceed without substantial oversight loses sight of all of the rest for whom the W3C is supposed to serve as guardian of the Web. Additionally, others who are not of the inner circle and who come to the process are at a disadvantage, because it's often difficult to articulate their requirements in a context that is understood by the design committee. Often proposed solutions don't entirely fit and are easy to ignore because the motivation is poorly understood.

Standards processes and standards organizations need staff and mechanisms to ensure that other voices from other constituents are heard clearly, that requirements are exposed and considered, that designs are not just reviewed after the fact, but that review comments are given sufficient discussion to expose the underlying requirements and to understand more clearly whether there is some way of meeting them, even if the offered solution isn't accepted.

In my experience, one of the most challenging tasks in standards-making was to push "proposed solutions" back to "requirements". Very often, someone would make a suggestion for some fix or patch or change they wanted to the specification. They were often unable (or, in some cases, for proprietary reasons, unwilling) to articulate the requirements or needs they were trying to satisfy by the proposed feature. Much of the difficult work was to distill these requirements and prioritize them, make them explicit, and explore alternative solutions.

Transparency in the standards process (e.g., a chart of suggestions ignored by the HTML5 editor) might help a little, but what's needed is a more thorough analysis of the requirements and evaluation of the specification against requirements in a neutral way. Doing so is a distinguishing characteristic which would differentiate an open and consensus driven standards organization from a consortia or a company producing proprietary solutions.

As W3C examines its budget priorities, I believe that the only proper response to both the W3C financial crisis (as well as the dissatisfaction with prominent ongoing activities such as HTML5) is to look harder at the organization's priorities. An effective W3C is one in which W3C can provide technical management. Technical management of a standard involves more than just making sure the meetings are held on time and that there are minutes. The W3C organization needs to provide leadership that reflects its mission statement: Leading the Web to Its Full Potential. The implicit assumption is that it is the full potential for all, not a small subset. The management team, staff, TAG and other important controls of the W3C process should be sufficiently focused not only on the technical aspects of the specifications being developed, but also on the impact the specification has on the broader range of constituencies, even when those constituencies are not directly engaged in the process. The structure of W3C process and technical oversight - director, TAG, staff - have intrinsic limits as to the scope of activities that can be effectively managed.

Many of the other core specifications which underlie the web (beyond HTML) are also in need of maintenance. In the IETF, the HTTP specification is being updated to correct errors and clarify ambiguities, yet this effort has received scant W3C attention. The URI specifications have several areas which need clarification and further standardization work (the "file:" URI comes to mind), yet there is no motivation or effort to fix the potholes - everyone is focused on building bridges, with the hope that some day they might lead somewhere.

I'm calling for more focus of W3C staff on the core specifications which are of critical interest to the broadest constituencies. To do this and stay within budget implies a drastic retrench of the current W3C activities, even at the expense of driving a number of activities outside of the W3C.


  1. Larry,

    First, I appreciate you spelling out your arguments here on your weblog, and I’ve tried to understand your perspective as best I can.

    Where I have trouble, though, is with statements like “Making changes or additions to HTML, and encouraging content creators to use additional features where universal acceptance is not likely is irresponsible, because it fragments the web, and encourages creation of content which only works for some people and not others.”

    Given your employer, this feels a bit like talking out of both sides of your mouth. Now I realize that you’re not part of the Flash team, may have no connection whatsoever to it, and may not even like Flash. Nevertheless, while you’re right that “Good standards are hard and take time,” on the Web (or really, with any technology at all) things that “take time” are usually superceded by things that go most of the way and can get out the door quickly. Such as, for example, Flash.

    I came here after reading some [highly-charged] posts about HTML5, and am trying to understand Adobe’s objection to the canvas API. Is it because, at the philosophical root, Adobe and you believe that “the expansion of W3C activities outside the core of the web” means that the canvas API is overreaching what is, at a very basic level, a hypertext specification? Because if so, that objection feels thin. If the W3C’s purposes are boxed in by “the core of the web,” whatever that means, are all the non-core parts merely open to a melee competition by the major software vendors? It seems like that would be the very quickest path back to the “chaos of the browser wars.”

    If I've misunderstood — as I suspect it’s likely that I have — I’d welcome any clarification.

  2. As I've argued Orthogonality of Specifications, allowing independent technologies to evolve independently is part of the strength of the web platform. Tying it all together in one spec, and one working group, is harmful.

    As I noted in a Future of Web Technology and Standards (given in 2000 when I was working for AT&T), standards follow innovation, rather than leading it. I disagree completely that "things that 'take time' are usually superceded by things that go most of the way and can get out the door quickly." Good standards are good for a long time.

    (And, as posted elsewhere, neither I nor Adobe object to, oppose, are trying to block, slow down, or do naughty things to the Canvas APIs; claims otherwise are just histrionics.)