HTML5 isn’t a standard yet

Watching the Google I/O first day keynote, I’m pleased to see the level of support and interest from Google about HTML5. Sure enough, I wished SVG would have been mentioned there, as they did for the Canvas API, since I believe both technologies have relevant use cases. As an example, I made a demo of the HTML5 video element using SVG for the player interface. But overall, we do indeed need to tell the world that HTML is evolving to become the platform for a rich array of Web applications. New Web browser features aren’t just limited to new user chrome or extensions.

I did notice however several mentions of the “HTML5 standard” that led me to write this post to remind the community of the current status of the specification, both in practice and on the standards track.. HTML5 isn’t a W3C standard. We certainly look forward to the day when it is, but it isn’t yet. In fact, the specification, co-authored by Ian Hickson from Google, is still very much a work in progress. We still don’t have a required video codec to be supported by all browsers. Lively discussion is still happening in the HTML Working Group about the level of consensus around the spec. Sam Ruby of IBM and Chris Wilson of Microsoft are trying to move the Group forward. At the moment, HTML5 is only a working draft and Ian hopes to get it ready for Last Call review in October/November 2009 timeframe. Some of the work is also happening in the Geolocation, CSS and Web Applications Working Groups, so not all of it is under “HTML5”.

So, while it is great to see support for and implementation of HTML 5, the community has not yet reached agreement enough to call it a standard, and it has not been implemented consistently across multiple browsers. Building a test suite will help a lot and we don’t have one yet. This is an area that we intend to explore and to seek community support.

35 thoughts on “HTML5 isn’t a standard yet

  1. Indeed HTML5 will never be a W3C Standard, since the W3C doesn’t publish standards.

  2. By the way, isn’t it too soon to implement support for HTML5 in mainstream browsers? Implementing parts of HTML5 in Firefox 3.5, e.g., will render those parts unchangeable, like did Netscape with its <img> element.

  3. So they’re not going to be recommendations anymore?

    Maybe I should update the WHATWG site to also use the term Standards, then! I thought we were keeping the word Standards reserved for official standards organisations (like the ISO, say).

  4. W3C primarily pursues its mission through the creation of Web standards and guidelines. Since 1994, W3C has published more than 110 such standards, called W3C Recommendations. …

    From About W3C.

  5. So why do people keep saying the W3C doesn’t release standards it releases recommendations? I’m really confused now.

  6. Hixie is correct, Philippe. The W3C does not, and never will, publish real standards because it is not a standards organization: It’s a CONSORTIUM (you know, that “C” in W3C is there for a reason – look it up!). Standards and Standards Bodies must be endorsed by governments and legally enforceable. W3C recommendations are simply “recommendations”. There is no legal consequence to not following or fully conforming to a “recommendation”… it’s a recommendation, like I could recommend you go to a nice restaurant and have the lasagna, but you might choose to ignore my recommendation and have the fish instead. Sure, if you are an implementer, and you ignore certain parts of a recommendation, the market might punish you for it (e.g., IE downward market share since they were busted for being anti-competitive and ceasing development on IE for years). But the law never will say to an implementer, you didn’t follow that “recommendation”: that would be ridiculous. Also, the W3C should never consider allowing their recommendations to become law. That would suck for everyone: imagine if a developer could be sued because their web page does not conform to a “standard”. Implementers would also cease to implement because it would make them liable for making claims about conformance. Ask Timbl, his book “Weaving the Web” discusses all this and why the W3C is not a standards body.

    I think the W3C should stop lying to people and stop pretending it is a “standards” organization: it’s a consortia, like OMA, OMTP, LIMO, OpenAjax Alliance, etc. If it wants to be a REAL standards organization, then it should harden up and let governments in and allow its specs to become law (and watch all the members vanish into thin air). Otherwise, it should stop deceiving people as telling people it produces standards is proving to be harmful and misleading.

  7. Hi Marcos. I guess we’re going back to the old debate that was discussed for many hours about using the term “standard” for the W3C Recommendations. After many years, we settled to stop going around in circle and acknowledged the use of the term standard. And I’m not eager to reopen that debate. You may want to argue with Wikipedia on the matter of what constitute a standard organization. You could also point out to ISO that XML isn’t a standard and therefore shouldn’t be use normatively in ISO documents until it becomes one.

    Finally, I don’t see why W3C shouldn’t allow its specifications to be used into laws. If they’re useful as such, why not? I think XML is in use in reports to the SEC in connection with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. I’ll grant you that I don’t expect anyone to suggest that HTML should be put into a law any time soon.

  8. Dear Marcos,

    the distinction you are making is as wrong as it is verbose. What you are talking about is the difference between de jure standards and voluntary standards.

    W3C makes standards, of the latter kind (except when they are carried over to ISO, like PNG, but I don’t see that happening much — the value in ISO ratification is marginal).

  9. @Philippe, since when did Wikipedia become the authoritative source for definition of “standards organization”? There is no argument, it’s just another source for a definition (and a weak one at that, IMO).

    Re, ISO, I don’t see a problem with them citing a recommendation as part of a larger standard. The larger standard is the one that becomes certifiable and enforceable by law; XML should just stay as is: a “recommendation”.

    Re: law. I don’t know the details of that case. However, the accessibility of HTML has become law in a lot of countries, but based on a poor standard that has been continuously/dangerously shown to be scientifically groundless (WCAG). I’m a big proponent of accessibility, but that kind of thing is dangerous.

    @Robin, you response was as as un-insightful as it was short:) However, as you said, the distinction between voluntary standards and de jure standards is important here. So, I still think the W3C should make it clear that “recommendations” are “voluntary standards” and what that actually means.

  10. Marcos wrote:

    However, the accessibility of HTML has become law in a lot of countries, but based on a poor standard that has been continuously/dangerously shown to be scientifically groundless (WCAG).

    I would be interested in seeing your evidence to back up the assertion that WCAG “has been continuously/dangerously shown to be scientifically groundless”.

  11. Does it really matter what the definition of a standard is, or whether W3C makes standards vs strongly-worded guidelines, or whether Marcos and Robin can have fun poking at each other?

    What I see is a community that is enthusiastic about the HTML 5 technology and a bunch of major vendors promoting interoperability. Compare this to other vendors promoting their proprietary plugin-based solutions be used for all sorts of Web content. Why are we arguing? “Can’t we all just get along?”

    My feeling is that W3C should be excited about the HTML 5 buzz. Maybe the title of this blog post was intended to be along the lines of “HTML 5 adoption is increasing rapidly, but we still have a lot of work to do”?

  12. marcos, are you referring to WCAG 1.0 (which contains many parts that became obsolete almost as soon as it was released in 1999, as technology and browser support moved on at speed) or WCAG 2.0? if it’s the former, it’s irrelevant due to the new version, which due to its tech agnostic nature should age far more gracefully. if it’s the latter, though, i would really love to hear your argument in more detail – and, as steve, would be mighty interested in your evidence.

  13. Steve, for instance,

    “1.4.3 Contrast (Minimum): The visual presentation of text and images of text has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, except for the following…”

    Where/how was the magical contrast ratio of 4.5:1 derived? what scientific research/studies went into deriving that number? What was the sample size. What colors where tested? in what context and what else was on the screen at the time? What testing methodology was used, etc. etc…

    Then we have, “1.4.4 Resize text: Except for captions and images of text, text can be resized without assistive technology up to 200 percent without loss of content or functionality.”

    Again, relative to what? Why 200 percent and not 250%? and how did the group settle on that number? What testing was done? where is the evidence and under what conditions where the tests conducted? Where is the data?

    The WCAG is dangerous because it seems to be based on people pulling numbers from thin air. If the above was based on research, then citations should have been added to specification so people could weight the guidelines intelligently instead of a gospel (for all I know, the editor’s settled on 4.5:1 and 200% by flipping coins!). The reference section contains no links to any significant studies (I would expect at least 100 independent, verifiable, ones for a document of this importance) or primary evidence.

    The way the WCAG should have been written is: “Studies conducted by A,B,C, in 2003 on X number of participants with disability H have shown that text with a contrast ratio of 4.5:1 is, in 80% of cases, bla bla bla.” Without citations to research, the WCAG(2) reads like a 1950’s government propaganda or worst: some kind of religious text. There is no way to trust the text and I’m certainly not into taking such texts as gospel when there is no evidence that it’s based on any scientific research. What research has been conducted to even show that the guidelines improve accessibility, and by how much, relative to content that does not follow the guidelines?

    This is why, Steve, those guidelines are dangerous. And, until the group can present its research, those guidelines should be taken with a grain of salt (and definitely should never become law). I’m not saying the guidelines are bad or wrong, I just want to see the research that underpins the guidelines. Is that too much to ask? I mean, people like to know the rationale as to why they are doing something. I’m not going to follow some guidelines unless I am guaranteed results beyond what I could achieve with a little common sense. Without the backing of research, the WCAG completely lacks that guarantee because there is no level of assurance.

  14. Whatever the definitions and whether something is a standard or not – waiting is BORING.

    The W3 should speed it all up. The www has become so important, and noone thinks things should be rushed, but what if nothing happens after years and years?

    Finding a consensus quickly is more interesting than idly waiting for years of nothing happening!

  15. Since I was apparently mistaken about the “standard vs recommendation” thing, and since the term “recommendation” is a W3Cism that seems to cause confusion, I’ve updated the WHATWG version of the HTML5 spec to say “Draft Standard” instead of “Draft Recommendation”. This should make it clearer that HTML5 is indeed a standard, albeit one still in development (as it will probably continue to be until it is obsolete).

  16. So what? Much of it is implemented on the next version of Mobile Safari, and that’s my target.

  17. Dean, as I said, I was pleased to see the level of support from Google on HTML5. We do need indeed to get the message out that HTML is evolving.As I’m doing demos using HTML5, I can tell you that the level of support for HTML5 in Web browsers is not satisfactory yet. This post was indeed to remind folks that we’re not done yet.

    Markus, I think a lot of people would wish that HTML5 was moving faster, in order to deprecate HTML4 sooner rather than later, but we still need to produce a test suite for HTML5 if we want to make it more useful than HTML4.

  18. @Markus, the HTML-WG is always looking for editors to help out. If you want things to go faster, don’t complain, do something about it!

  19. I think it’s safe to say…it doesn’t really matter. The W3C does set standards, their own. And their rendition of HTML 5, when finalized, will be a “W3C” standard. Nitpicking at this fix and trying to make more out of it than what it is, is a waste of time.

    Personall, I can’t wait for the HTML 5 “standard”.

  20. …since the term “recommendation” is a W3Cism that seems to cause
    confusion, I’ve updated the WHATWG version of the HTML5 spec to say
    “Draft Standard” instead of “Draft Recommendation”.

    Playing semantic games with long held W3 tradition seems marvellously apropos, if not ironic cheek. ;-) However, I rather like the humility of “recommendation” or “request for comments,” but recognize the word “standard” better reflects colloquial usage.

  21. I sure wish there were standards. I am so sick of things not working correctly. Writing code and creating working site is a real task when you have to test over and over. IE never works correctly with their proprietary crap. This nonstandard html thing only affects people who do not use wysiwyg editors, which create sloppy and depricated code!!!!!

  22. HTML like standard has not has future. Big numbers of development technology like Silverlight, Flash and so on do our time. Maximum content of the Internet in this time is a Multimedia. And of course main role in this proccess play a browsers manufacturers. So, they has last word.

  23. The term ‘standard’ is irrelevant legally and for any other intent, unless you have some legal or otherwise relevant entity to enforce it. So in this case it is being used as a commonly understood expression. It means many people will adhere to it to promote common goals of accessibility and usability. This is a linguistics question that frankly is a waste of your collective brainpower. I was actually a bit surprised to see a discussion last this long. I hope you all (as the smarter and more effective in the world of the web) can get past this minutia and get back to making the web a more universally accessible place. Keep up all of your hard work.

  24. Marcos’ assertion that “Standards and Standards Bodies must be endorsed by governments and legally enforceable.” is utter^3 nonsense! Standards are not laws, they just aren’t.

    Once the way that a protocol or system is to work is agreed, between those who will be using it, IT IS A STANDARD. This has nothing whatsoever to do with “laws”, whatever you might mean by that term, nor “governments”, whatever that might mean, nor “legally enforceable”, whatever you might mean by that! Sheesh!

    If I want to check the correct usage of an HTML tag, I come to the W3C, not the ISO.

  25. Let’s focus on the goal: insuring that everyone “on the web” can reliably communicate. HTML was intended to be the “common language” that every device, browser, computer could read and interpret, even though there are other languages and systems and formats and features. Increasing the capabilities of the common language to include “web applications” is an important subsidiary goal, as long as the original purpose of HTML isn’t lost.

    It is important to avoid the tragedy of the commons, where individuals and organizations acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource. The “commons” is “global interoperability”.

    W3C provides a forum where organizations that might otherwise be in competition can get together and agree on a common technical goals — one that they all agree to implement — and to document that agreement in a way that anyone who wishes to can participate in interoperability. I don’t think the quibbles about “Standard” vs “Recommendation” matter. It’s critical, though, that whatever is documented and published (and promoted as a “standard”) actually represents agreement.

    I don’t see how it is helpful if the status of the agreement of the participants is obscured. Calling something a “standard” (even if qualified as “under development”) before there is agreement doesn’t distinguish between “proposed but not agreed”, “agreed but incomplete”, or even “agreed, but document not finished”. How does this help reach agreement?

    Is shipping an implementation of a proposal before there is agreement helpful? Perhaps as a way of resolving disagreement by “fait accompli”, but if different vendors ship different, incompatible versions of their own interpretation of the “draft standard”, that would be counter-productive. If vendors ship implementations and call them “standard”, but in the end the feature doesn’t ever become standard — doesn’t this encourage users to create content that only works in some browsers and not others? It becomes another instance of “best viewed by”.

    I can’t see how continuing independent tracks of web development (one for browsers and another for XHTML/XML/SVG-based workflows) can evolve into a single web useful for all.

    Whether something is called a “Standard” or not doesn’t matter as much as whether doing so helps or hinders where we need to go. Let’s focus on that.

  26. I would hope HTML 5 takes steps toward correcting some of the boondoggles caused by CSS2 and deprecated HTML. For example, continuing a list after making some annotations is considerably more difficult now. Having to frame an image in a division tag with text-align: center; CSS to get it centered is nonsense, and doesn’t work in some browsers. I could go on and on.

    While most of the CSS upgrades are beautiful, some of them, especially when considered with deprecated HTML, are more convoluted than ever and only invite and encourage more hacks and workarounds to be used.

    Tableless layouts using CSS are very search engine unfriendly…unless of course you work several hacks into the code, making it unnecessarily complicated. I think a few less eggheads are needed and should be replaced with a few more people with common sense. Thanks for listening…or reading as the case may be.

  27. I think that the internet needs to comply by one standard of rules. No variation. Even though that saying name=hi and name=”hi” is the same for a lot of browsers, things need to be literal.

  28. I read the first portion of the HTML5 W3C Editor’s Draft, and I am curious why the specification is explaining how algorithms should work in user agents step-by-step (i.e. Section – Lists of Integers). This seems to defeat the whole purpose of having more than one user agent. Don’t take away the programmers’ job to create and generate their own algorithms to solve a problem. I don’t remember coming across anything like this in the other W3C recommendations. I do believe that if the W3C wants to tell the programmers how the algorithms should be implemented, it should simply build its own user agent.

    And what exactly is going on here? I thought XHTML 1.0 was to replace HTML 4.01, and XHMTL 1.1 was to replace XHTML 1.0. Finally, I thought XHTML 2.0 (which looks quite beautiful) was to replace XHTML 1.1. It seems that creating an HTML5 recommendation is a step backwards. Perhaps I simply don’t know what I’m talking about.

  29. @Matthew Pava

    I remember reading something about Apple and a group of other media participants eager to make HTML simpler and more media friendly developing HTML 5 apart from W3C because they (Apple, etc) didn’t like the direction in which XHTML was going.

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