In the beginning, there was darkness. It was the darkness of a lack of information, the darkness of dusty libraries, heavy textbooks and secrets whispered from one person to another. In the space of this darkness, there came a flicker of red light — the flickering red light of a modem. It was a candle in the darkness, the beginning of information beginning to ooze from computer to computer through Gopher holes across the endless blackness of cyberspace.
Then in 1984, somewhere in Switzerland, that candle evolved into the world’s first light bulb. At CERN, the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee had created the World Wide Web. Nine years later, Marc Andreessen and his team produced the Mosaic web browser, the first graphical interface for the Web. Light bulbs started turning on all over the world, and gradually the darkness was replaced by light. Information was no longer contained to college libraries and closely guarded lineages of secrets; information was suddenly flowing fast and free everywhere in the world.
Chaos in the Darkness
However, the early days of the World Wide Web were marked by confusion. Imagine a room full of 10 people trying to have a conversation, but everyone is speaking a separate language. Something similar was happening in the early 1990s; as new browsers were created, each displayed websites slightly differently. Although all sites were written in Berners-Lee’s HTML, the nascent Web lacked agreement on how to present this lingua franca consistently. Berners-Lee stepped in again, this time creating the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. A mix of industry leaders, computer scientists and academics, the W3C started creating standards with the goal that all websites would display the same regardless of what browser was being used.
The W3C has been the self-appointed sheriff of the Web since 1994, and for most of its history, that’s been fine with everybody.
Then came XHTML.
XHTML was a subset of the language XML, and while HTML was a very flexible language, XML was much more restrictive. By the late 1990s, websites were starting to do more and more fancy things, but HTML was having trouble keeping up. XHTML was seen as the direction of the future; it would make HTML more flexible, it would triumph over poorly coded sites and it would enhance usability. The W3C decided to stop evolving HTML and start focusing on the XML-based equivalent instead.
However, not all developers liked XHTML. To make a long story short — a story which would really only make sense and be of interest to code jockeys anyway, some developers protested the development of XHTML and argued that it made more sense to continue to evolve the existing HTML.
The Players and the Saga
The W3C ignored the naysayers and forged ahead with XHTML development. The naysayers ignored the W3C and forged ahead with their own developments of HTML5. This split led to the creation of a second group of developers creating their own standards: the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, or WHATWG. Its main members included people from Apple, the Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software.
The WHATWG folks had tried to convince W3C of the faults of XHTML. Opera and Mozilla together had published a position paper on the topic in 2004, arguing the reasons why HTML needed to be evolved rather than continuing down the road of an XML-based Web. When the W3C didn’t listen, WHATWG went its own way.
Two years after that paper was published, the W3C had to admit that trying to get the whole world to switch over to XHTML simply hadn’t worked. Internet Explorer, versions 6 through 8, didn’t even support it. Given that Microsoft’s browser was still dominating the Web at that time, that was a very big problem. W3C had no choice but to admit that the WHATWG people were right and retreat towards developing HTML.
The W3C started working on HTML 5. (Note that this is HTML-space-5, as opposed to what the WHATWG was calling HTML5. W3C later started calling it HTML5 as well.) To heal the split, the W3C used the work the WHATWG had already done, incorporating it into the newly evolved HTML.
The Klieg Light of the Future
Today, parts of HTML5 are already being used by web developers. By 2014, expect essentially all mainstream browsers to be updated for HTML5. If the early days of the Internet were candle-like, the early Web light bulb-like and the last few years LED-like, think of HTML5 as a klieg light. It will enable websites and browsers to do things that they’ve never been able to do before; extensions and plugins to supplement browsers, such as Flash plugins, for example, will become unnecessary. Website applications have better support. Importantly, HTML5 will also be mobile-friendly.
Out of the drama of the W3C versus the WHATWG, HTML5 has been born. The casual Internet user should thank WHATWG for making the future of the World Wide Web arrive a few years sooner.