Interview: Paul Cotton on Microsoft Participation in the W3C HTML Working Group

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Paul Cotton

As part of a series of interviews with W3C Members to learn more about their support for standards and participation in W3C, I'm talking to Paul Cotton from Microsoft and co-Chair of the W3C HTML Working Group.

First, let me thank you personally on becoming a co-chair of the W3C HTML Working Group. I am very happy with Microsoft's commitment to the HTML Working Group and to HTML 5. Microsoft is collaborating very actively, and helping drive consensus around many HTML 5 proposals related to Canvas, Accessibility and Extensibility.

Q. Microsoft participates in a large number (~30) of W3C Working Groups and has shown this level of commitment for many years. You sent 12 people to the November 2009 HTML Working Group face-to-face meeting, an unusually high number of people from a single company for a face-to-face meeting. Why is Microsoft investing so heavily in the W3C HTML 5 effort?

A. Thank you Philippe, I really appreciate your comments.

It’s true, Microsoft has been working with the W3C since the 1990’s, and has held a number of leadership positions as well as having a great many individual contributors engaged with a variety of different W3C working groups. Over the last decade, since HTML4 was made a W3C Recommendation the Web has grown immensely. It’s also gone from a fairly static, document centric place to being the rich, interactive, transactional and real-time place it is today. HTML forms the backbone of interoperability on the Web, and as the next revision of the specification begins to take shape, Microsoft plans to contribute the necessary resources and expertise to help the W3C ensure a thoughtful, comprehensive, backwards-compatible, and testable specification is put forward as a new W3C Recommendation. W3C and Microsoft understand that the Web is no longer the domain of just academics, governments, and computer scientists, but that it is today a vital service relied upon by regular people around the world as well as enterprises. It is a vital part of everyday life, and must be treated with the utmost care.

Because of this, Microsoft has allocated software engineers, test developers and program managers to assist the W3C with the work ahead. Microsoft has a vast breadth and depth of experience in the challenges of supporting such a vast, dynamic ecosystem – after all, over a billion people rely on the safety, security, and compatibility of our operating systems today. We’ve learned a lot of lessons – sometimes the hard way – about how to build resiliency and interoperability into our operating systems. We want to bring this expertise to the W3C to help with the challenge of revising the underpinnings of the Web.

Since August 2009 when I became a co-chair of the W3C HTML Working Group I have been trying to use my more than 10 years of W3C experience to help progress long standing issues on the specification, to define a testing infrastructure, and to push for more work in important areas that had not yet received enough attention – like accessibility.

Q. There is considerable confusion about what HTML 5 is: People use the term HTML 5 to refer not only to the work of the HTML Working Group, but also to work being done in other W3C working groups or even referring to technologies that are not being standardized. As co-Chair of the HTML Working Group, can you talk about what the group expects to be part of HTML 5 and how it relates to the work of other Working Groups?

A. I agree that many of us use the term “HTML 5” very loosely.

First, I believe that most people use the term “HTML 5” to refer to the HTML 5 specification currently being worked on by the HTML WG. The HTML 5 specification defines the syntax and the semantics of the elements and attributes in the HTML markup language and several of the APIs that are used to process HTML documents. Recently the HTML WG has started to break the HTML 5 specification into more modular and separate Working Drafts e.g. HTML+RDFa, HTML Microdata, and HTML Canvas 2D Context. The HTML WG is also publishing two additional documents to aid users of HTML 5: the HTML 5 differences from HTML4 specification and HTML: The Markup Language which is aimed at developers that produce HTML 5 output.

Each of these additional Working Drafts are still part of “HTML 5” and are all on track to become separate but related W3C Recommendations or Working Group Notes. I believe that the content of these WDs taken together will define the part of “HTML 5” being worked on by the HTML WG.

But I believe that some use the term “HTML 5” to refer also to the important related API specifications being worked on by the WebApps WG. The WebApps WG is chartered to create client-side APIs that can be used with the HTML markup language – in fact some of its specifications started as part of the HTML 5 specification but were migrated over to be separate modular specifications managed by the WebApps WG. In addition there are some very interesting APIs under development by the Device APIs and Policy Working Group which are related to HTML 5 since they can be used with the HTML language and in user agents.

Others use the term “HTML 5” to also include the ECMAScript-262 Language which defines the programming language that we use today to build dynamic web applications.

Q. There is a considerable amount of work is still required before HTML 5 is finalized. There has been a lot of excitement in web development circles about HTML 5, and a lot of misconception about the status of the specification. Can you explain exactly where you see the current status of the HTML 5 specifications and the process being organized by the 3 co-chairs of the HTML Working Group to drive HTML 5 to completion?

A. The HTML 5 specifications being worked on by the HTML WG are all at the W3C Working Draft stage. This means that the material is not final and is still being worked on by the HTML WG.

In order to get the WG’s specifications to the W3C Last Call stage the WG needs to resolve all the known comments and issues with the Working Drafts and make WDs functionally complete. In order to do this the WG co-chairs have helped the WG come to consensus on a decision policy for outstanding issues. The WG is now using and evolving this policy. The current status of issues before the WG is available.

Q. Where can we find the latest information on the current status of HTML 5 and the list of open issues of the HTML Working Group?

A. The HTML WG encourages comments and input on the WG’s Working Drafts. The WG processes comments by using a Bugzilla entry for each separate comment. There is a Bugzilla “component” for each of the HTML WG specifications, for example, comments related to the main HTML 5 specification can be entered via the “HTML 5 spec bugs” component. Anyone can search the Bugzilla components for the HTML WG to see which bugs have been for example been CLOSED or which are still OPEN. And as indicated above the status of the issues before the HTML WG is available.

The current HTML WG working drafts and other HTML-related working drafts are available.

Q. Can you talk about the Working Group's perspective on the role of testing in the standards process?

A. Last fall the HTML WG agreed to create two separate task forces: one on Testing and a second on Accessibility. The Testing Task Force’s mandate is to setup the infrastructure and a test suite for the HTML WG’s specifications. The task force is lead by Kris Krueger from Microsoft. The Testing Task Force’s Wiki pages are available.

When the WG has processed all Last Call stage comments the HTML WG specifications will move on to the W3C Candidate Recommendation stage when the W3C does a “Call for Implementations” for the specifications. The idea behind starting the Testing Task Force so much in advance of getting to the CR stage is to build as much of the required test suite as possible BEFORE the WG’s specifications gets to CR. By doing this the time spent in the CR stage should be minimized. In addition by creating tests for the specifications as early as possible these tests can then be used to assist in improving the quality of the HTML 5 specifications even before the Last Call or Candidate Recommendation stages.

Having a comprehensive test suite for all the HTML 5 specification is something that Microsoft thinks is very important. Microsoft is committed to submitting test cases for HTML 5 features and to reviewing test cases submitted by other task force members.

Q. Although HTML 5 has not been finalized, can you talk about what parts of HTML 5 IE8 supports?

A. IE8 implemented some features from the W3C HTML 5 Working Draft (AJAX Navigation, Network Connectivity Events), from the W3C Web Applications specifications (DOM Storage, Cross Domain Request and Cross Document Messaging), from the ECMAScript-262 Language specification (Native JSON Support) and CSS Selectors and Mutable DOM Prototypes. A good overview of these functionalities is available.

Q. Can we expect even more support for HTML 5 in IE 9?

A. Watch this space. As you can see, Microsoft is investing very heavily in the W3C HTML 5 effort, working with our competitors and the web community at large. We want to implement ratified, thoroughly tested, and stable standards that can widely help interoperability of the Web. We will have more to say on the subject at the MIX conference.

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