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HTML 5 shall not murder Web Standards

Or, Browser Manufacturers protect Users from Harmful Effects

The W3C HTML WG makes for interesting albeit frustrated reading. April had 1,773 messages. Thus far, May has 640 after six days. Various comments throughout these W3C HTML WG messages bemoan the lack of punishment for sites which are “tag soup” constructed. And, disillusionment with the promise of HTML5. Those have been frustrating reading.

Yes, most of the pages found are HTML “tag soup”. Curiously, most forget that most pages were constructed before Web Standards was invented. One can produce HTML nonconforming content as easily as nonconforming content in XHTML is produced. XHTML was an experimental attempt at resolving flaws in UAs or, User Agents’ error-handling. Wellformedness adherence was not overly successful. XML solved that. Faulty XML causes draconian error-handling. Everyone has seen draconian error-handling: PHP and Javascript scripting errors cause browsers to display an error message. Or, blue screens. That’s draconian or, hard error recovery. It ceases processing.

That’s the rub. Some want punishment for “tag soup”; some don’t. Others, want something between.

The W3C HTML WG has HTML Design Principles (Proposed). They are pragmatic rules of thumb that must be balanced against each other, not absolutes. They are guidelines. Two of which are of particular interest regarding web standards and "tag soup".

Support Existing Content

“SupportExistingContent: Browsers implementing the new version of HTML should still be able to handle existing content. Ideally, it should be possible to process web documents and applications via an HTML5 implementation even if they were authored against older implementations and do not specifically request HTML5 processing.”

“All changes and additions could cause some content to malfunction at least in theory, but this will vary in degree. We need to judge whether the value of the change is worth the cost. Cross-browser content on the public Web should be given the most weight.”

“Example: Many sites use broken markup, such as badly nested elements (<b>a<i>b</b>c</i>), and both authors and users have expectations based on the error handling used by legacy user agents. We need to define processing requirements that remain compatible with the expected handling of such content.”

Handle Errors

“HandleErrors: Error handling should be defined so that interoperable implementations can be achieved. Prefer graceful error recovery to hard failure, so that users are not exposed to authoring errors.”

[Note: These message threads comment in some fashion on the above texts. WYSIWYM Editors [March 17, 2007], Proposed requirement: Don't Break the Web [March 24, 2007], Proposed Design Principles [March 27, 2007], Proposed Design Principles updated [April 3, 2007], Proposed Design Principles review [April 26, 2007], Support Existing Content (was: Proposed Design Principles review) [April 27, 2007], A Compromise to the Versioning Debate [April 15, 2007] and Legacy of Incompetence? [was: A Compromise to the Versioning Debate] [April 15, 2007].]

These two sections — “Support Existing Content” and “Handle Errors” — do not in themselves condone fault-ridden source code (nor—by inference—dismiss the importance of Web Standards) However, they do acknowledge existing content of which over 90% is invalid. Legacy content included. It would appear some have taken this acknowledgement as encouragement for the allowance and continuance of nonconforming HTML. This W3C HTML WG Error Handling and Legacy Content message by Anne van Kesteren [May 2, 2007] begins a three-message thread which posits each side of the argument, “Why is nonconforming content harmful?”, that I believe makes an excellent summation for supporting existing content with graceful error handling currently employed by every major browser and UA. And, future browsers.

Web Standards advocacy must continue regardless of what the W3C HTML WG does.

The WHAT WG never once promised to eradicate malformed, nonconforming content. It never proffered it would make Web Standards Life easier. [Note: That would be the argument that if <font> is obsoleted for authors but included for UAs, it will be used by authors.] It never wrote a section (and, neither has the W3C HTML WG) entitled “Support Existing Shoddy Authoring Practices”. It did promise backwards-compatibility. The arguments for using HTML5 as the punishment mechanism of nonconforming content are annoying. The inferences that Web Standards proliferation has been doomed because of continuing graceful error handling are disappointing. And, frustrating. Web Standards philosophy and principles cease when advocacy ceases.

The W3C HTML WG has to cater to authors, web developers, UAs and Everyone else who will use HTML5. Error handling will continue to make Web Standards Life difficult.

Nonconforming content on other sites has not harmed me; error handling precludes harmfulness for User Agents. That’s that.


I’ll continue pontificating and practicing Web Standards.

Sean Fraser posted this on May 6, 2007 02:05 PM.

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The Elementary Standards: A Compendium of Web Standards, CSS, Linguistics and Search Engine Optimization methodology Copyright ©2005-2007 Sean Fraser. All work is published under a Creative Commons License. All Rights Reserved.

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