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 Founder and CEO of Blue Badge Insights, an analysis, strategy and advisory firm serving Microsoft customers and partners. Brust is also a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; an advisor to the New York Technology Council; and co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press, 2012). A frequent speaker at industry events, Brust is co-chair of the Visual Studio Live! family of conferences and a contributing editor to Visual Studio Magazine. Brust has been a participant in the Microsoft ecosystem for over 20 years, and has worked closely with both Microsoft's Redmond-based corporate team and its field organization for much of the last 15. He is a member of several "insiders" groups that supply him with insight around important technologies out of Redmond. Follow Brust on Twitter @andrewbrust.

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 FeloneousCat

"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."... MAY?!? I predict Androids from the future MAY take over Microsoft. But in doing so they will factionalize Wall Street. OMG!!! Here is a reality check: Microsoft has BEEN through the "doesn't play with others". They won't be able to sell IE in Europe if they don't play with others. Your conclusion is based on pure speculation based on fantasy. Considering that all other browsers combined dominated over IE, I suspect IE will follow suit. They've been through the "we'll do it our way" and people switched to Firefox. I don't see anywhere in the specs where it says "must provide Adobe and Microsoft income" and to me that is the gist of Brust's piece. Because when those are no longer required, they will die out. Good riddance.

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 KidSysco IL

Is Google going to run off with the HTML 5.0 spec? That sounds like something MS would do back in the day. That is until MS customers started to demand standards compliance. Google is showing a lack of experience here, they should have seen these things happen in the past and learned from it. If Google does run off with the spec, then I suppose we will all just turn to JQuery to once again, fix the DOM from corpratist giants. JQuery rules! Props to MS for supporting it as such!

Sun, Jun 27, 2010 Clinton Gallagher; Milwaukee County, WI

Andrew, either you are ignorant or very biased here. Microsoft (for the most part) has lost most of their credibility on the web and while there is no doubt a ring of scum on the Microsoft tub higher than Dean Hackamovitch et al. (sp) he and his IE colleagues have demonstrably proven they are sleazy weasels; these guys refused to even talk about SVG back in the day because they wanted everybody to use the vector format they already had built into their desktop products and --that-- could never be acceptable due to the overwhelming advantage that would result so all that was asked of them was fair play and cooperation. Did that occur? So Dean, you are being extremely hypocritical here. Finally, At that time I thought AutoCAD would also become web-enabled (hardy har har) as I discovered they paid $10,000 for a seat on the SVG committee resulting in an opportunity to spy and learn what to build into their proprietary vector-based CAD websites product. So Andrew, you're really coming off as a hypocrit here.

Fri, May 14, 2010 Jeff Woodman Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

I agree with Andrew that there's a potential for a fractured standard, or separatist specs, that will continue to make web development harder than it needs to be, by necessitating browser workarounds and much more testing. I'm still looking forward to HTML5, but won't press the issue at work until there's a business reason to do so.

Wed, May 12, 2010

When anything bad happens to Microsoft, they are just reaping what they've sown. IE really bites IMO. It is slow and cumbersome as compared to others. That aside, Microsoft never held to standards in the beginning and included IE. Most users unfortunately use whatever is available without knowing there is an alternative. Microsoft also pretty much stole java by crippling it until they come up with DotNet. Dotnet code and Java code look very similar. If it were the other way around, Microsoft would have had patent suits like they do for others. I say they get what they deserve in these situations because they've brought it on themselves.

Thu, May 6, 2010 Andrew Brust New York City

IE9 will support HTML 5. That's what piqued my interest in it in the first place. The issue is that the very definition of HTML 5 is not hard and fast. Given the WHATWG vs. W3C dynamic, and the lack of consensus it may engender, some browsers may implement different feature sets from others. Whose will be the “true” HTML 5? I don’t know. But as long as they’re different, it’s an issue and a potential expense.

Thu, May 6, 2010

What the hell does this mean? "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." HTML5 is complementary to ASP.NET. IE9 will support HTML5 and therefore IE9 will be very compatible with many of the current browsers when it ships. In fact, compatibility may even improve thanks to HTML5.

Thu, May 6, 2010

Brust's piece is drivel. Here's a worthwhile piece on HTML5 by someone who knows what they are talking about:

Tue, May 4, 2010 Sam

I have a tough time considering silverlight when I've seen some really great demoes of HTML 5. In addition, Silverlight doesn't work on the iPad or iPhone. I'm sticking with making great web apps via HTML and MVC before jumping into silverlight, which only really works well with Internet explorer.

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