HTML5 is done, but two groups still wrestle over Web’s future

The following blog is an excerpt from the article ‘HTML5 is done, but two groups still wrestle over Web’s future’ by   

The World Wide Web Consortium finishes an update to this seminal Internet technology, but with two organizations in charge of the same Web standard, charting the Web’s future is a mess.

After a nearly 15-year gap, the World Wide Web Consortium said Tuesday it’s done standardizing the new version 5 of HTML, one of the two fundamental technologies that makes the Web work.

But while HTML5 is finished, a tug-of-war over how to set such standards — and therefore how to chart the future of the Web — is far from over. That’s because a second organization, the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group, is also in charge of HTML, and a rift between the two appears to be widening instead of closing.

The tension between the W3C and the WHATWG has been present for years, but it’s got new consequences now: anything that slows the improvement of the Web means programmers are more likely to devote their energies to writing apps for smartphones and tablets running on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems instead of HTML5. When making their mobile operating systems, Google and Apple aren’t held back by the slower consensus-building processes used to make industry standards like HTML appeal to the broadest range of parties.

The Web isn’t dying, but slow development lets the world of mobile apps claim the initiative. The Web’s accomplishments — a computing system bigger than any one company working on it, and one with an impressive reach across the computing industry — diminish as its shortcomings rise to prominence.

In the meantime, the Web world must adjust to the differences between the two camps. The W3C, with a broader range of participants, uses a formally structured, deliberate, drawn-out process in which a series of drafts gradually become final standards released relatively infrequently. The WHATWG, born of browser makers’ cooperation when the W3C spurned their desire to improve HTML, produces a “living document” that’s continuously updated with the latest features and bug fixes. Where the W3C’s standard is fixed and stable, the WHATWG’s is fluid.

“It’s absolutely right that those different interest groups slug it out,” said Bruce Lawson, co-author of a book on HTML5 and an open standards advocate with browser maker Opera Software. “The Web is the biggest platform we’ve ever had. Therefore, it has more constituencies and competing interests than we’ve ever seen.”

W3C: The Web will win

W3C Chief Executive Jeff Jaffe acknowledges that the mobile app world is attracting a lot of developer interest. But in his view, the Web will prevail in the long run because it can span so many devices.

“There’s plenty of time for us to catch up,” Jaffe said. “The power and promise of interoperability across platforms is extraordinarily powerful. The mobile app was just the for the phone, but now it’s not. It’s going to be the e-book reader, the automobile, the TV. And all the sudden, the promise of interoperability is going to become even more important than when it was just the phone.”

To that end, Jaffe posted a blog earlier this month on application foundations. It calls for improvements in eight areas to make Web technologies more competitive with Android and iOS when it’s time for developers to write apps.

“What I’m trying to do is change the culture of the Web community to also think about what the developers need,” Jaffe said — not just nuts and bolts but functions like security, payments and tools that work even if a device isn’t connected to the Net.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady, who follows programmer issues, agrees that life is too hard for Web developers. “Native development” — writing apps for a specific operating system rather than for a Web browser on all operating systems — “is much more straightforward.”

Jaffe hopes to tackle these future standards issues this week in Santa Clara, Calif., at the W3C’s annual Technical Plenary Advisory Committee (TPAC) conference. Alex Russell — a Google employee who’s trying to improve the W3C through work on its Technical Architecture Group (TAG) — said TPAC also is a place to wrestle with the conflict around the best way to make standards.

“I think anyone trying to understand how screwed up this situation is really should come to W3C’s TPAC,” Russell said. “All of the agitators…will be there.”

HTML5 and W3C’s patent protections

For the W3C, the release of the final version of HTML5 — a step formally called a “recommendation” — is immensely significant. The nonprofit group was founded precisely to do such work, but the last version it released — HTML 4.01 — came in December 1999. The biggest change for average users of the Web, far and away, is video that becomes as ordinary as text and still images were before. That helps free the Web from browser plugins like Adobe Systems’ Flash Player that extend browser abilities but which also open them to new security and performance risks.


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