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HTML5 gets the splits

HTML5 spec editor Ian Hickson has posted on the WHATWG mailing list, formally outlining changes to the relationship between the WHATWG HTML "living standard" and the W3C HTML5 snapshot-oriented specification. Hickson also confirmed he'll no longer edit the W3C spec, and he told The Verge: "It's certainly possible that the specs will fork, but it's unlikely, or at least, unlikely to happen in a way that is harmful." He added that the WHATWG spec would "match what implementations do regardless" and the W3C spec "has to pass the W3C Process, which requires proving interoperability".

Opera web evangelist Bruce Lawson told .net that he didn't see the relationship change making a great deal of difference to the web: "It won't matter as this is what's been happening anyway – it's always been two organisations developing their own 'HTML5 specs'. W3C has snapshots, WHATWG is an 'incubator' – commit-then-discuss." Lawson said each group's spec has things that aren't yet implemented, and so developers must "keep checking that features they want to use actually work in real shipping browsers", adding that "this is how we've worked for 10 years."

Author and web developer Shelley Powers thinks differently, and told us "the situation is getting worse". She said there had been small checks on Ian Hickson's actions when he was writing the spec as part of the HTML WG, but now there are none. "I can't see an unchecked Hickson, delivering a whatever-is-HTML document-of-the-moment, as being a good thing for the web community at large," she said. On the possibility of separate editors being beneficial, Powers told us, "Only if there is a channel that takes the blistering-edged HTML document through the stabilising influence of the W3C. And only if all players agree to follow whatever comes out in the end of this process. We know, though, that this isn't going to happen. What you have now, is chaos masquerading as control. Frankly, I'd rather just have honest chaos."

Hickson, as noted, said forking is unlikely to cause a problem, but Powers wasn't convinced fragmentation wouldn't be a problem: "Yes and no. Yes, if the promises given were actually adhered to. No, because the promises given are never adhered to." Indeed, she suggested browsers using different versions of the spec as a baseline could be causing problems now. "Supposedly the future of HTML means that no feature ever becomes obsolete, so you should be able to use, say, 'longdesc', and it should be supported. In reality, you don't know what you're going to get from week to week – and I mean that literally: week to week," she said. "It will have to be up to the end-users, including web designers and developers, as well as accessibility experts, to actually put brakes on the browser companies. We're going to have to decide what's stable or not; what's safe to use or not. Both the W3C and the WHATWG have abrogated any interest in serving the end user community. It used to be HTML was a foundation on which we can build. Now, it's quicksand."

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