For the last decade I have been saying that XHTML is a bridge, a conduit to a glorious future of pure XML. While that is still true, things have been complicated somewhat by the introduction of HTML5.
After XHTML was finalized in 1999, the W3C started in on XHTML 1.1. In some ways this small, bureaucratic revision of the language, but one change was very significant: rather than merely being cross-compatible with XML, XHTML 1.1 was XML, and had to be served in as XML to the browser. To the W3C, this was the next logical step.
At the time, the browser with preeminent market dominance (Internet Explorer) barely understood XHTML, let alone XML served directly. While not the W3C’s fault or responsibility, this “reality gap” created the impression that the organization was increasingly out of step with the day-to-day reality of creating content for the web, preferring to immerse itself in pure theoretical work that had little application to real-world issues.
XHTML 1.1 was never really taken on by web developers. Tensions only grew with the XHTML 2 initiative. As proposed by the W3C, XHTML 2 would be completely new, dropping any relationship to, and compatibility with, HTML. It was bold and promising – but progress, developed by international committee and consensus, was achingly slow. Demands from the web development community for features they wanted now, such as more intelligent web forms and the ability to create applications, were rejected by the W3C. Even the inventor of HTML weighed in, stating that the effort to move the web to XML was not working.
What happened next was a schism.
Opera, Apple, Google, Mozilla and other major players moved to put their weight behind a splinter group: the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, or WHATWG.
Rather than the large, UN-like organization of the W3C, in which no one person has preeminent authority and decisions are made formally and very slowly, WHATWG is more like a benign dictatorship: small, streamlined, and headed by just one person, editor Ian Hickson. WHATWG focused on a pragmatic evolution of what browsers supported, and what developers wanted to achieve. Well-funded and with powerful companies evangelizing its work, the organization’s HTML5 proposal quickly gained steam. At the same time, the W3C continued to try to roll XHML2 forward.
To its credit, in 2009 the W3C recognized that its own efforts were not producing the value that it expected, and were in fact threatening to balkanize the web. It dropped development of XHTML 2, transferred its developers to HTML5, and formally adopted the work of WHATWG, moving into the role of senior advisor, reviewing and formalizing the HTML5 proposal. WHATWG is still at the coalface, interacting with designers and developers while putting the final touches on HTML5; the W3C is refining the result, preparing it for “final candidate recommendation” in 2012, its seal of approval, meaning that the language is “done and dusted”.
HTML5 has quickly gained browser support, and should see us through the majority of the second decade of the 21st century. The future is still XML: the potential of a true “roll your own” markup language is too powerful to resist, but its adoption in the browser has probably been delayed a dozen years. And that is okay: HTML5 is meant to fulfill our needs now.