When I hear “last call,” I typically rush to the bar and place a few drink orders before the bartender shuts down the flow of alcohol to its belligerent patrons. But in the case of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announcing last call on HTML5 – what does it mean? We’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid spiked with HTML5 for quite some time, and are drunk with hallucinations that it will solve all of the world’s problems. So if we’re already intoxicated, what’s the point of last call?
The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), and all of its flavors, is a victim of its own success. It made a relatively easy process out of creating and sharing information across the Internet. Millions of people now use it to develop Web sites. With that many developers, everyone wants to have a say in its future direction. The W3C is not only the governing body, but its director, Tim Berners-Lee, is the author of the first version of HTML. The 61 members of the W3C team have the arduous responsibility of making decisions that impact not only millions of developers that utilize the language, but also billions of users that see the results produced by HTML.
HTML 4.0 went to recommendation status on December 18, 1997. That was nearly a year before Google was formed in September 1998. The Web was a very different place at that time, and the mobile Web wasn’t even a consideration when HTML 4.0 went to recommendation. What took so long to get to HTML5? Part of the reason is that the W3C was taking a different path in the last decade – something the mobile Web got trapped in with variations of the language such as XHTML. But the sheer size of the affected parties and the revenue impacts that it has on the companies that support the Web created a political environment that makes it challenging to certify a standard the way that it was in the beginning.
Case in point is the ongoing debate for the support of embedded video in HTML5. Is it H.264 or WebM? This issue has been ongoing for years and without resolution. But what’s the difference between video and images? Images have been supported since early versions of HTML, without preference to a certain media format (i.e. JPG vs GIF, which was a debate amongst many developers). What’s really interesting about the comparison of video versus images is how quickly the <img> tag made it through the process. Back in 1993, when very few people had a vested interest in HTML, Marc Andreessen, author of the Mosaic browser and co-founder of Netscape, proposed the tag in an e-mail and within a few weeks had a conclusion.
The politics of HTML5 are worth noting because it shows how the standard will evolve over the next few years. The Web is not in start-up mode – where a few people can make a decision and arrive at a quick answer. Instead, the W3C is burdened with voices and opinions (sometimes with their own hidden agendas) that slow down the process. Meanwhile, the market cannot wait for top-down decisions to be made, which is why many vendors, impatient to wait for the final standard, have already deployed HTML5. So while last call is an interesting footnote, we need to temper our expectations, as it may be another couple of years before it is really a standard. In the meantime, with the market moving so quickly, expect to see more deployments of HTML5 that contain partial compliance. And by the time HTML5 is finally certified, expect people to begin talking about HTML6, because we need more than what is currently in HTML5 to truly address development across multiple screens.
My head spins thinking about the possibilities over the next few years. I think for my last call, I’ll be ordering a glass of Rum & Coke. Actually, make that a double shot!