HTML5: Specification spaghetti?

For those that have been tracking HTML5 for a while I’m sure life is crystal clear, for those that have not well lets just say you may need some help navigating your way through over 900 pages of documentation which is duplicated by two separate standards organisation and further confused by media journalists and industry analysts.

First a quick step back into history: 1991 Tim Berners Lee publishes “HTML Tags” basically the first publication documenting HTML.

However it was not until 1995 with the publication HTML 2.0 that a standard was born by a working group in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Fast forward again and W3C took over HTML in 1996 but it was not until 2000 HTML became an international standard (ISO/IEC 15445:2000). In 1999 the W3C issued HTML 4.01.

In 2004 a working group consisting of individuals Apple, Opera and Mozilla formed the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) to look at the evolution of HTML.

The WHATWG believed that much more evolution was required and their views were in contrast to what the W3C was doing with Xforms in 2003. The WHATWG set out on their own to define HTML’s destiny. However in 2006 the W3C took an interest in participating in their work and both groups have been working together since.

Simple right? So they are both working together on HTML5 specification and are going to publish a spec soon? The answer to this question is not so easy, so we have to break up the question.

Yes they are both working together. However the specification(s) being worked on by the WHATWG cover broader technical ground than the specification for HTML5 being proposed by the W3C (e.g. Canvas 2D, Microdata, Cross document messaging).

In addition to this the HTML specification developed by the WHATWG is a subset of their “Web Application” specification which covers additional topics (e.g. WebWorkers, WebStorage, WebSockets…).

Essentially the W3C have divided out some of the work that the WHATWG are doing as separate specifications/standards. The good news is that we are told they are both working from the same source. The relationship of the various documents are neatly summarised in the FAQ’s of the WHATWG website.

All clear now? At the start of this article I alluded to other parties adding to the confusion, mainly the Press and Analysts. Some of this stems from the various sub specs created by the WHATWG and W3C, but also by the grouping of the evolution of other separate but related technologies like CSS and Javascript.

In an attempt to help their clients clarify the situation technology analyst Gartner describes this superset of standards with the catch-all term “Modern Web Technologies”, however I am yet to find a single definition of all the standards their terminology encompasses.

As I sifted through sites and wiki’s everything was going so well until the W3C launched their HTML 5 logo programme saying that it was for : “general-purpose visual identity for a broad set of open web technologies, including HTML5, CSS, SVG, WOFF, and others”… doh ! Back to the drawing board then.

Oh well ignoring all that noise, there’s only the small matter of reading through over 900 pages of specification(s).

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Dharmesh Mistry is the CTO/COO of Edge IPK, a leading provider of front-end Web solutions. Within his blog, “Facing up to IT”, Dharmesh considers a number of technology issues, ranging from Web 2.0, SOA and Mobile platforms, and how these impact upon business. Having launched some of the very first online financial services in 1997, and since then delivering online solutions to over 30 FS organisations and pioneering Single Customer View (Lloyds Bank, 1989) and Multi Channel FS (Demonstrated in Tomorrow’s World in 99), Dharmesh can be considered a true veteran of both the Financial Services and Technology industries.