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The Philosophy of HTML 5 as Explained by Ian Hickson

The philosophy of HTML 5 (or, Web Applications 1.0) may have been devined it one wanted to read various ephemera, e.g., blog comments, or, The WHATWG Blog FAQs. That's changed.

Vlad Alexander (xhtml.com) on the WHATWG Specification Mailing List wrote [whatwg] several messages about HTML5 [February 20, 2007] of which there have been numerous responses. However, there are two sets of responses—I believe— that address the philosophy of HTML 5. They were written by Ian Hickson; they are concise with simple eloquence and "real world" examples which Everyone will understand.

The following excerpts were taken from these mailing list posts.

Vlad Alexander: One of the biggest problems with HTML is that content authors can get away with writing “tag soup”.

Ian Hickson: Is it really a problem? Or is it the reason the Web is so wildly successful? Would the Web have taken off in the same way if it worked like most other systems, showing error messages whenever something was the least bit wrong?

Vlad Alexander: Why not put an end to “tag soup” by requiring user-agents to only accept markup written to specification?

Ian Hickson: There are literally dozens if not hundreds of billions of documents already on the Web. A study of a sample of several billion of those documents with a test implementation of the HTML5 Parser specification that I did at Google put a very conservative estimate of the fraction of those pages with markup errors at more than 78%. When I tweaked it a bit to look at a few more errors, the number was 93%. And those are only core syntax errors -- it didn’t count misuse of HTML, like putting a <p> element inside an <ol> element.

If we required browsers to refuse those documents, then you couldn’t browse over 90% of the Web.

But consider -- if one browser showed error messages on half the Web, and another browser showed no errors and instead showed the Web roughly as the author intended. Which browser would the average person use?

If we want to make HTML5 successful, we have to make sure the browser vendors pay attention to it. Any requirements that make their market share go down relative to browsers who aren’t following the spec will immediately be ignored.

Vlad Alexander: The chair of the HTML Working Group at W3C, Steven Pemberton, said “HTML is a mess!” and “rather than being designed, HTML just grew, by different people just adding stuff to it”.

Ian Hickson: He's right! This continues to this day. We’re trying to bring some level of sanity to the process, though!

Vlad Alexander: In the minds of most people, HTML is dead and X/HTML 5 is perceived as an attempt to resurrect it. Given this perception, how can you succeed in marketing HTML to consumers (those who build Web sites)?

Ian Hickson: According to some other research we did for the HTML5 effort, over 95% of the Web today is HTML, with the rest being mostly a smattering of PDF, Word, and plain text. Under what definition of the word could it be considered “dead”? Web designers never stopped writing HTML pages. I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty convincing them to continue doing so.

Vlad Alexander: Since much of the content on the Web is created using such authoring tools, can we ever achieve a semantically rich and accessible Web?

Ian Hickson: There will always be a continuum of sites from the unusable to the very accessible. As with all fields of human endeavor, there will always be the highly competent Web designers who understand fundamentally how to build device-independent sites that cater to all kinds of users, and there will always be the inexperienced and ignorant Web designers who think only in terms of their own personal experience, targeting a specific browser on a specific computer without taking into account any other potential user experience.

Probably the best we can do is design the language to make “the right thing” easier, and invest more heavily in education. In this regard HTML is in the same boat as more important subjects; I imagine that as we improve the quality of education in general, understanding of the importance of accessibility and related topics will improve as well.

Conversation With X/HTML 5 Team was published by xhtml.com [February 21, 2007]. It is an extended interview with Ian Hickson composed from the five (5) original mailing list posts:

  1. [whatwg] Why do we need X/HTML 5? [February 19, 2007]
  2. [whatwg] Timetable for moving X/HTML 5 through the standards approval process [February 19, 2007]
  3. [whatwg] New markup constructs [February 19, 2007]
  4. [whatwg] several messages about HTML5 [February 20, 2007]
  5. [whatwg] several messages about HTML5 [February 20, 2007]

Everyone should read it. Those who agree with the efforts of The WHAT WG; and—Especially—those who don’t.

Sean Fraser posted this on February 21, 2007 12:40 PM.

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Ian Hickson wrote this at February 21, 2007 04:43 PM

I believe the xhtml.com article only includes the text that I wrote on the mailing list as well, for what it's worth (there were three e-mails from me in total that he used, I believe). Glad you found it helpful though!

Comment Author Gravatar
Sean Fraser wrote this at February 21, 2007 05:18 PM

Ian: Thank you. I made the correction; I had forgotten about Mr. Alexander's posts from the previous day.

Who would not find it helpful?

Mauricio Samy Silva wrote this at April 9, 2007 01:44 PM

A Brazilian-Portuguese translation of this article is available at: http://www.maujor.com/blog/2007/04/09/filosofia-do-html5/

Comment Author Gravatar
Sean Fraser wrote this at April 9, 2007 06:13 PM

Mauricio: That's very generous. Thank you. Ian's always quotable.

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