January 17, 2012, 11:58 AM — The nice thing about standards is there are so many of them to choose from.
That old chestnut, attributed to any number of different parties, has been in circulation since long before there was an Internet, but it still speaks volumes to the curious situation developing today:
With multiple, parallel versions of HTML in use; a slew of different browsers in play, all of which implement those HTML versions slightly differently; and two separate standards-setting bodies directing traffic, the World Wide Web looks to have any number of possible futures.
For those of us in IT -- the people, after all, who have to deploy, test and support the browsers and systems everyone uses -- the decisions of the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group are more than just academic, and they raise some sticky questions.
How should we go about supporting browsers that are becoming more fluid, with point revisions every few weeks instead of every several months to a year? And how do we tap all of HTML's new, evolving functionality without breaking existing designs or compatibility?
To answer those questions -- and chart a course for HTML evolution in murky waters -- it helps to know a bit of background about these august institutions.
In this corner, W3C
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards-setting body most directly responsible for the Web as we've come to know it, was formed in 1994 as a way to corral together a single, consistent version of HTML. This it achieved, at two costs.
The first involves enforcement, or the lack thereof: The W3C's standards are Recommendations (they insist on the capital R), which aren't backed by any enforcement. That's because attempts in the early 2000s to provide official conformance testing for W3C recommendations fizzled out amid concerns that the group would become too authoritarian or too commercial.