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Strong opinions, weakly held

A new way of writing a standard

I’ve been paying attention to the various goings on in the world of markup this week, and there will be lots of relevant links in the next roundup I post, but I wanted to comment on this email from Shelley Powers on Ian Hickson’s decision to give every browser maker veto power over any of the features listed in the HTML 5 specification. Powers absolutely hates this idea, but I confess that I’m intrigued.

Hickson has decided that the spec will not contain any features that browser vendors have not committed to support. This is very different from the usual standard-writing process, especially when it comes to W3C standards. In the past working groups have come up with lots of exciting new features and various rules to be obeyed and then the programmers go off and create something loosely based on that standard. The degree to which browsers are compliant with recent standards is a running joke, although things are much better now than they were a few years ago.

When asked whether each browser vendor can, by themselves, prevent a feature from being included in the HTML 5 recommendation, Hickson responds:

Not immediately, but if you had notable market share and we could not convince you to implement these new features, then yes, I’d remove them and then work with you (and everyone else) to try to come up with solutions that you would agree to.

Even if you did not have notable market share, I would work with you to understand your objections, and try to resolve them. (Naturally if your goals are substantially different than the WHATWG’s goals, then this might not go anywhere. For example, if Microsoft said that we should abandon HTML in favour of Silverlight, without making Silverlight backwards- compatible with HTML, then this would be somewhat of a non-starter, since backwards-compatibility is an underpinning of our work.)

What I find interesting about Hickson’s approach is that he makes the presumption of good faith. His process will only work if the browser vendors wish to collaborate to improve the Web experience by adding new features to HTML 5. Powers objects because she assumes bad faith on the part of vendors:

If we continue to allow one vendor/one veto to be the underlying philosophy of the HTML WG, then we might as well end working on it at this point, because I can’t see it being anything more than a race to the bottom, with each vendor looking to cripple open web development in favor of its own proprietary effort.

Worse, this process completely and totally disregards the community of users, of web developers, web designers, accessibility experts, and gives ultimate power to five companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera–with Microsoft having the largest veto power. The rest of us might as well go home, because we have no say, no input, nothing of value to add to the future of the web. Not unless we crawl on bent knee to each vendor and ask them, “Please sir, I want some more.”

So here’s what I like about the Hickson philosophy. It will expose whether browser vendors want to work together to build new things everyone can benefit from, or if they want to rekindle or perpetuate the browser war. The thing is, we’ll know it earlier in the process than we would otherwise. Powers proposes a “three vendor” standard — if three vendors promise to implement a feature, it will be included. But then what happens is that the features go into the spec, those three browser vendors implement the feature, and the intransigent vendors do not? As professionals we can’t use new features anyway until they’ve been implemented. Under Hickson’s approach, the inclusion of a feature in the recommendation signals a commitment from all browser vendors to implement. We can plan ahead based on that.

If nothing else, it’s a new approach to an old problem. I’ll be curious to see what the process yields.

3 Comments

  1. Since the announcement of the video deciscion with the proximate timing of the XHTML2 Working Group not being renewed, I see HTML5 as a sort of UN and the browser manufacturers as the permanent members of the Security Council, for better or worse.

  2. <p>I don’t really agree with formal objection, wasn’t XHTML2 the spec for things that weren’t implemented in browsers?</p>

    <p>I think there’s a resistance to the idea that HTML5 might be about the web as it’s used and going to be used in the near future by web developers rather than the theoretical ivory tower web that only exists in the occasional well funded institute. I think the lapse of development in HTML over the last 10 years has created the notion that HTML5 is a monolith, a one shot deal for HTML, when it seems to me that the W3C/WhatWG intend to be much more active caretakers of HTML from here on in.</p>

  3. I like that this makes explicit (or may make explicit) what is already implicit. It’s intriguing and I’m curious to see if the veto power will actually used.

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