The raging tensions over HTML development have been the most visible fields of Web evolution in the last two years. Media prognostications ranging from the salvation to the destruction of the Web have followed the announcement of proprietary incompatible extensions, and the later of common compatible specifications.
In many areas of development in W3C, a focused group of the 180+ Member organizations work hard together for a common understanding, and then the industry builds competitive products on top of a common solid base. That's how it is with HTTP, and with PICS, for example. Its working this way in Privacy work and Cascading Style Sheets too. But in HTML, the competition runs as far as competing for versions of the standard on which much of Web interoperability, and the warp and weft of most of cyberspace, relies. It's no wonder consumers, buyers and IT managers are concerned.
In HTML, things happen differently. Browsers, while supporting the latest standard, also support new features. Some features die in the market place and are never heard of again. Others become product differentiators between the cool and the even cooler. The features the market likes are quickly replicated, often in incompatible forms, by other browsers. At this point, engineering teams at each technology provider are saddled with supporting two or sometimes three ways of doing the same thing.
That's the point at which, even for HTML, Members come to and need W3C. Lack of industry consensus is making product clumsy to maintain, and buyer excitement turns to buyer nervousness. It is time for the engineers from each company to sit around the W3C table and hash out a common solution. HTML 3.2, a W3C Recommendation as of January 1997, demonstrates the effectiveness of the W3C HTML Working Group.
An exciting by-product of this collaboration allows the designers to capture the best ideas of each of the original competing proposals. The W3C HTML Working Group is now working on HTML 4.0, and for the first time today unveiled a draft of its contents. At Web speed, the community is eager to know what HTML 4.0 will look like even though this is a working document and may change before ratification as a W3C Recommendation.
Each time a new version of the HTML specification is ratified, it answers questions like:
Each new version sets a higher plateau for the Web. HTML 4.0 is no exception. Many applications that rely on broad, interoperable support of forms enhancements will be feasible for the first time. Some will build new features on the HTML 4.0 plateau, introducing new tags which, if accepted by the market, may appear in a future version of HTML.
But the crazy feature rush may be slowing. HTML 4.0 has a powerful <object> element which allows extensions to be incorporated without changing HTML; Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a W3C Recommendation released December 1996, accommodates a variety of format, layout, and desktop publishing features that were making an awkward entry into HTML; and W3C's Extensible Markup Language (XML) naturally supports a variety of applications which could compromise the design of HTML. So while you can read HTML 4.0 as being the next frame in an adventure movie being played faster than feels comfortable, it may mark the beginning of a maturity. HTML may one day be a closed book, a key to many new formats which build on it but don't threaten its interoperability.
The folks at W3C are equipped to handle it either way, as the market surges. And you can be sure that on the Web as a whole, nothing is slowing down.