The two specifications of HTML 5.0: WHAT WG vs W3C

I’m just back from a workshop on HTML 5, led by web standards advocate and CSS expert Molly Holzschlag. It proved an illuminating session, though not quite in the way I had expected. Holzschlag, who works for Opera, was keen to convey the ideology behind HTML 5 rather than giving us a blow-by-blow tour of its features (though she did a little of that). She was also open about its problems, explaining that the spec is in flux and everything may change – “we make it up as we go along” – and talking about the politics as well as the technical aspects.

In her view, Microsoft is now fully on-board with IE, and committed to implementing the W3C HTML spec as it evolves. So too are Mozilla and Opera. She is less warm in this respect towards Apple, Google and Adobe, who she described as the “new Microsoft”, meaning I think that their business interests may be detrimental to their work on progressing the standard.

It is surprising to see Google mentioned in this context, since it is the company most obviously concerned to advance the browser’s capabilities, thus increasing the capabilities of its web-based platform. Ian Hickson, who is the editor of the HTML 5 specification, works for Google. Still, HTML 5 is a subject full of contradictions. One of its most curious aspects is that there are two HTML 5 specifications, one at WHAT WG, and one at the W3C, both edited by Hickson.

The history is that at one time the W3C, the official body in charge of the HTML specification, decided to replace HTML with a stricter XML-compliant language called XHTML. Real-world adoption was limited, and WHAT WG was set up by Google and browser vendors as a renegade group to work on a new version of HTML outside the W3C. When it became clear that XHTML was not achieving its goals, and that HTML 5.0 was meeting real needs, the W3C changed direction, stopped working on XHTML, and adopted the WHAT WG spec.

At this point you would have thought that WHAT WG might have closed itself down, job done. That is not the case though; it continues to work on its own version of the spec. I asked Holzschlag why this is, given that the existence of two HTML 5 specifications seems on the face of it to be destructive:

I think it’s very destructive. It’s very problematic. The WHAT working group is into innovation, and pushing the envelope, where they can’t do that in the W3C. The reason why the W3C’s stuff is important … is because it’s about open standards. The WHAT working group has no validation or validity or standing as an organisation other than its own self-involvement. The W3C is clearly the authority for most of these things.

Holzschlag emphasized that the W3C is a cross-industry body, with every browser maker and other interested parties such as Adobe represented.

Get us all round the table, and once we’ve spilt enough blood [laughs] we get on with the work and that actually goes through a very rigorous process, which a lot of people criticise and I feel it could be streamlined as well, but the bottom line is to ensure that it stays open, and it’s open standards, whereas the WHAT working group can decide any day that they want to close that door. At the W3C that can’t happen. That’s why if you’re really going to commit to anything in HTML 5, go with the W3C specs not with WHAT WG.

It’s a political issue in part, and in part it’s an ego issue. I think that Ian and his mates are great, very bright people but they are not totally mature yet … and I think that there’s a sense of self-importance going on, to be perfectly honest … I’m a little concerned about the monoculture that HTML 5 has created. So that exists and is a known factor. Everything I’ve said is nothing that hasn’t been said before publicly.

Strong words; yet overall Holzschlag conveys great enthusiasm for HTML 5 and its potential. She says that the mere fact of having all the leading browser vendors on board and talking to one another is of great significance.

But does HTML 5 exist? In some ways it does not; it is work in progress and not implemented consistently across browsers yet. That said, Holzschlag noted that the latest versions of the main browsers already implement significant parts of HTML 5; we will no doubt see more of it in Internet Explorer 9, for example. Even though Hickson said HTML 5 might not be done until 2022, it will be usable long before that.

9 thoughts on “The two specifications of HTML 5.0: WHAT WG vs W3C”

  1. Wow, so… an Opera representative doesn’t like Apple and Google. Hmmm, I think this is more about either WebKit’s mobile success, or H.264 video support. And she thinks the best way to create a standard is to have everyone and their dog at the table. Yeah – we get such great things out of huge ponderous committees. This worked *great* for things like X.500 and XHTML, which have been rousing successes.

  2. @Joshua Thanks for the comment. She is an open standards advocate; we heard very little about Opera though she did give it a brief plug. I would say she is realistic about the standards process; she argues that implementation always trumps specification and talks about “paving the cowpaths” – improving and standardising what has already been implemented.


  3. @Tim: Thanks for the interesting perspectives! I do want to clarify a few points. First off, WHAT-WG was not started by Google, it was started by group of independent spec writers and Web devs with deep feelings about the Web and its tremendous push toward an application platform. That was a very noble thing to do, in my opinion.

    To clarify my feelings toward Apple and Google in regards to HTML5 (These are my opinions, NOT Opera’s, which I work very hard to keep a clear differentiation but of course that’s tough to achieve all the time) it’s simply that I don’t see them playing at the table with the other kids quite enough. I also question, from a very realistic standpoint, what agendas they really have in terms of how they will implement and use HTML5 to their own benefits and if those benefits are actually in step with the core design principles of HTML5. Only time will show us how this bears out, but my concerns aren’t random conspiracy theories, they come from 20 years experience in Internet Technologies and watching how various companies move through their business models and agendas. It’s simply a logical concern.

    As for feeling threatened in any way by those issues in re: Opera, please let me be very clear Joshua. I am a standards advocate first, foremost, and always. Does working for a browser company bias me? In some ways I suppose it must – particularly because I am very happy at Opera.

    Remember, however, that I worked independently for the majority of my 20+ year IT career. I do speak my own mind, I do not sell product, and I focus on what Opera hired me and my big mouth to do in the first place – evangelize the Web and promote great relationships between web developers everywhere, no matter the company.

    I hope this serves to clarify. I truly understand why people might think I have agendas when I express a less-than-positive opinion about something, but mostly that agenda is just to share what I know, and learn from all perspectives presented.


  4. fwiw, inside-the-shop I see Adobe as fans of HTML and its continued evolution (as expressed by both specifications and implementations).

    There’s a marketing push for “Adobe hates ‘HTML5′”, which I think is mostly due to the need for a rationale to explain proprietary reduplication of existing Flash capabilities. But there’s actually much less drama in the real world than in the blogosphere.


  5. John, I appreciate hearing from you, thanks. I do know that the interest in the future of HTML5 is there from seeing work being done in Dreamweaver, etc. I don’t want to be part of misinformation. However, I do see Adobe as an entity being a more closed company than open, with the exception of some wonderful folks. So I apologize for spreading any FUD, not my intention, just my perception.

    In other news, I want to clarify the WHAT-WG/W3C relationship. To that end, here’s the direct quote from the WHAT-WG about how that works:

    “Note: This draft is a superset of the HTML5 work that is being published at the W3C: everything that is in HTML5 is also in the WHATWG HTML spec. Some new experimental features are being added to the WHATWG HTML draft, to continue developing extensions to the language while the W3C work through their milestones for HTML5. In other words, the WHATWG HTML specification is the next generation of the language, while HTML5 is a more limited subset with a narrower scope.”

    Thanks for the ongoing interest and information folks!


  6. “I do see Adobe as an entity being a more closed company than open, with the exception of some wonderful folks. So I apologize for spreading any FUD, not my intention, just my perception.”

    No worries on the latter in this case! 🙂 But note that the core here is a “feeling of closedness”, rather than an objective objection. The goalposts keep moving on this one. It’s as much a function of the feeling and the marketing as it is of any real thing that affects peoples’ lives, at least from what I’ve been able to draw out of prior online conversation.


  7. Hi Tim,
    Thank you for shedding light on the process of HTML5 development. For a neophite, would you expand on why itw ould be technologically desireable (for the users) for browser platforms technologically duplicate (improve?) through HTML5 existing technology as deployed in Flash and Silverlight? Also, are there any other platforms at which HTML5 is jousting?

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