The Failed Promise of HTML5

From the ‘Standards That Aren’t’ files:

The W3C announced this week that the HTML5 specification is now an official recommendation. While I was an avid supporter of the HTML5 effort in the early days, seven years ago, you can count me among those that aren’t all that excited by the W3Cs announcement.

In the early days of the web, it was the W3C and the HTML standard that developers worked towards. The mess that was HTML 4 and HTML 4.1, was only abstracted in the early 2000’s by the fact there there was no browser vendor competition.

That changed thanks to Mozilla. Mozilla helped to innovate the web, not the W3C. It was Mozilla that first popularized the use of tabs (which are now commonplace), put an emphasis on JavaScript (that now powers most dynamic web HTML5 apps) and made the browser space exciting again.

The W3C and the HTML5 specification is not an innovation engine. Rather it is in my opinion that the W3C’s recommendation is a statement after the fact. Four years ago, when I still actively believed that the W3C was on the right track, I wrote a story about how HTML5 was already broken.

The problem then as it is now, is that browser vendors call the shots, not the W3C.

Even now with HTML5 an official recommended standard, it’s not implemented uniformly by the browser vendors. Google for example, has taken multiple steps to ensure that certain applications only work in Chrome and not other browsers (unless those browser use extra add-ons). That’s not necessarily the fault of the standard, but it does speak to the failed promise.

The promise of HTML is a standard that browser vendors and web developers can look too for building technology and sites. The challenge is that the implementation remains somewhat fragmented.

I don’t blame browser vendors entirely for the fragmentation either, I blame the standards process. In December of 2012, I wrote about the last call for HTML5, that was nearly two years ago. Work on HTML5 has been ongoing since at least 2007.

The modern web hasn’t stood still for the last 7 years. In the modern web, browser vendors iterate every six to ten weeks.

Certainly the use of the Canvas tag has changed the web, for the better. HTML5 enables the use of video and audio (though codecs are still a challenge). But when I think of the goodness of the modern web, much of it is enabled through faster CPUs, more powerful JavaScript engines and Cascading Style Sheets that enable forms of layout that were un-imagineable in the HTML 4 era.

My challenge with the way the W3C works and the real world is that instead of creating standards; W3C strives to enable consensus, with limited success.

As a standard HTML5 is also somewhat questionable. Try building an HTML5 website using the published specs and see if it will work and render the same in IE, Safari, Chrome, Firefox on both desktop, mobile, Linux, Windows and Mac OS X — I dare you.

As I see it, web standards are now evolving every six to eight weeks and the W3C is merely a bystander in the process.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist

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