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1/21/2011
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HTML5 Is Dead, Long Live HTML

A name that served to assist Web standards advocacy is retired for the sake of clarity.

HTML5, the evolving specification that describes modern Web development technology, has proven to be a hit. It has the backing of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera, the major Web browser vendors. Apple and Google even have Web sites specifically to promote HTML5.

Yet only a few days after the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body that oversees the HTML specification, introduced a new HTML5 logo to promote next-generation Web technology, a related standards group, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) declared that HTML5 should henceforth be referred to simply as HTML.

In a blog post, Ian Hickson, the organizer of WHATWG, maintainer of the two HTML specifications, and Google employee, explained that the name change reflects a decision to move to a version-less specification model.

In an e-mail, Hickson said his group had wanted to change the name since December 2009, but held off doing so because the "HTML5" designation helped with advocacy efforts. WHATWG decided push forward with the name change because of confusion arising from the release of W3C logo.

"At the start of this year, we came to the conclusion that we should rename the spec sometime in 2011, but were expecting it to still be several months before it would make sense," he said. "With the logo thing on Tuesday, though, the situation changed somewhat: With even the W3C saying that 'HTML5' means everything from CSS to font formats, advocates really were left without anything to specifically refer to HTML. So we asked around, and the objections to the rename were much reduced already, even compared to a week ago, so we went for it."

The W3C on Friday clarified its initial suggestion that HTML5 includes other open Web technologies like CSS3 by stating that CSS3 is distinct from HTML5.

This all may be largely immaterial to the ultimate adoption of emerging HTML technology, but it does illustrate the fractious nature of the standards process, something more readily apparent in the divide over the HTML video tag.

While Google's Vic Gundotra in 2009 declared that "the Web has won," and held up HTML5 as the dominant programming model of our time, Hickson's view sounds more nuanced. In the battle between native applications on mobile devices and HTML applications, he acknowledges that native apps have an advantage.

"Proprietary technologies will always be a step ahead of vendor-neutral free and open standardized technologies," he said. "Standards are a poor way to innovate; they generally are descriptive rather than introducing new features, because you need implementation experience to know what will work. So technologies are experimented with in browsers and other platforms, and then as they mature and as we learn how to make them work on the Web, we add them to the Web."

At the same time, Hickson is disinclined to accept the proposition that the HTML, by virtue of the lengthy standardization process, can't compete with native applications and hardware innovation on mobile devices.

He suggested, "One could phrase the question the other way: Will native application programming platforms ever be vendor-neutral, free, open, and standardized enough to compete with the Web?"

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