Redmond Review

The HTML 5 Standard: Innovation or Oxymoron?

The next version of the Hypertext Markup Language, HTML 5, will bring true semantic capabilities to Web documents, augmenting their human-readable content with machine-readable data and metadata. Because of this, HTML 5 will affect the day-to-day work of Web developers everywhere.

Despite HTML 5's wide-ranging impact, the actual definition of the standard is being influenced by a much less-diverse group of people and interests. For Microsoft ecosystem developers, HTML 5 may end up being the technology equivalent of taxation without representation.

I wasn't always so critical of HTML 5. Seeing the presentation on IE9 and its HTML 5 support at the Microsoft MIX10 conference in March got me excited about the technology. I wanted to teach myself some of the forthcoming HTML features, so I decided to read the documentation. In doing so, I discovered that information on HTML 5 -- and the actual process around finalizing the HTML 5 standard -- involves not one, but two groups: World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG). And therein lies the problem.

A Seat at One Table
W3C has a process and membership that's relatively neutral and open, and that's a good start. But WHATWG was founded by people from Apple, Mozilla and Opera: essentially a collective of Microsoft's adversaries in Web technology. What's more, the sole editor of WHATWG's HTML 5 spec, Ian Hickson, is a Google employee. While Microsoft is an active participant on the W3C side of the HTML 5 effort, it's more of an observer on the WHATWG side. Is Microsoft being disenfranchised from the HTML 5 standards process?

It's worth noting that some consider Hickson, known informally as Hixie (@hixie on Twitter), to be the dominant force within WHATWG -- not simply documenting the group's HTML 5 spec, but exerting disproportionate control over the spec's content. This would seem to give Google privileged access. It could allow a situation where WHATWG might adopt a feature into HTML 5, one driven by Hickson and implemented in Chrome by his Google colleagues, while leaving W3C (and Microsoft) out of the conversation. If IE9 ended up not implementing such a feature, Google might criticize Microsoft for not implementing HTML 5 standards, and the splintering of the newly minted HTML spec could result.

Is this hypothetical likely, and is Microsoft really worried about it? One Redmond employee I spoke to, who admittedly is not part of the IE team but is also not prone to panic or drama, had this to say: "For Google, HTML 5 is whatever comes out of WHATWG ... For most of the rest of the world, 'standard' is whatever comes out of W3C and IETF [the Internet Engineering Task Force]."

In other words, some HTML 5 standards may end up not being universal, which means they're not really standards at all, but rather exist as separatist specs. HTML 5 is supposed to be the manifestation of the Open Web, but it could just end up being a bastion of opaque maneuverings.

Developers' Dilemma
Google has a vested interest in keeping the Web a markup-based world. HTML pages with JavaScript can be crawled and indexed by the Google search bots, and they're the easiest assets in which to insert AdSense ads. So for Google, plug-ins are bad for business, and extending HTML 5's Web application capabilities is good.

In addition to HTML 5's data and metadata features, many capabilities -- which today are exclusive to rich Internet application (RIA) technologies like Silverlight and Adobe Flash/AIR -- will be possible in markup-based HTML 5 pages, without the need for plug-ins. This includes such features as embedded audio and video, dynamic 2-D drawing, drag and drop, and form element enhancements with attributes like autofocus, required and contextmenu.

That's why the final form of HTML 5 is so important to Microsoft-focused Web developers. Its encroachment into RIA territory could impact Silverlight. Its enhancements to pure Web applications will impact ASP.NET. But perhaps most importantly, the standards process around HTML 5 may factionalize the Web and diminish compatibility between IE and the four other major browsers. Increased testing burdens could result, keeping you at work longer or raising your development costs. So keep your eyes on the process, and hope it gets more democratic. HTML 5 may make for more attractive Web pages, but its evolution at the moment is not a pretty picture.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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