How to cope with HTML5's dueling standards bodies

Analysis: Savvy IT departments should steer clear of HTML5's two gatekeepers -- W3C and WHATWG -- and concentrate on browsers.

HTML5

The nice thing about standards is there are so many of them to choose from.

That old chestnut, attributed to any number of different parties, has been in circulation since long before there was an Internet, but it still speaks volumes to the curious situation developing today:

With multiple, parallel versions of HTML in use; a slew of different browsers in play, all of which implement those HTML versions slightly differently; and two separate standards-setting bodies directing traffic, the World Wide Web looks to have any number of possible futures.

For those of us in IT -- the people, after all, who have to deploy, test and support the browsers and systems everyone uses -- the decisions of the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group are more than just academic, and they raise some sticky questions.

How should we go about supporting browsers that are becoming more fluid, with point revisions every few weeks instead of every several months to a year? And how do we tap all of HTML's new, evolving functionality without breaking existing designs or compatibility?

To answer those questions -- and chart a course for HTML evolution in murky waters -- it helps to know a bit of background about these august institutions.

In this corner, W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards-setting body most directly responsible for the Web as we've come to know it, was formed in 1994 as a way to corral together a single, consistent version of HTML. This it achieved, at two costs.

The first involves enforcement, or the lack thereof: The W3C's standards are Recommendations (they insist on the capital R), which aren't backed by any enforcement. That's because attempts in the early 2000s to provide official conformance testing for W3C recommendations fizzled out amid concerns that the group would become too authoritarian or too commercial.

The other cost is the speed of decision-making. The W3C, whose membership is a broad and diverse mixture of companies, educational institutions and individuals, has been consistently criticized for being stodgy and hidebound. After XHTML 1.1 was published in 2001, it took the W3C until 2006 to release eight working drafts for XHTML 2.0. Such a pace just wasn't working for a Web that was becoming more consumer-focused and commercially driven.

In that corner, WHATWG

In retrospect, it's no surprise that another group -- the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) -- arose in 2003 to tackle "the development of HTML and APIs needed for Web applications." WHATWG is a conglomeration of engineers from Apple, Mozilla and Opera; all three have a hand in the browser market, and that's how WHATWG drives progress -- from the browser side.

"The WHATWG is faster-moving and able to take direct action on standards because many of the members own the browsers that users rely on," explains Forrester researcher Jeffrey Hammond. "The WHATWG follows the golden rule: He who has the gold -- browsers in this case -- makes the rules."

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