What is the history of HTML5?

It’s very useful to understand the history of how exactly HTML5 evolved, because it will help to understand why some pieces of HTML5 are the way they are. We promise to try not to bore you, but rather keep this article short and sweet, because knowing some of the history of HTML5 really is helpful once you start working with it.

HTML5 was almost not created

In 1998, it was actually decided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – the main standards organization for the world wide web – that they would not continue to further develop the HTML standard.

This was because they believed that the future was with XML and not in HTML. So, they froze HTML at version 4.01 and in it’s place they released a specification called XHTML 1.0. XHTML was an XML version of HTML that required XML syntax rules such as quoting attributes, closing some tags while self-closing others, etc. But, XHTML syntax rules are far more rigorous than HTML, and it is tough if you want a document that truly complies to the XML rules.

Difference between XHMTL Transitional and XHTML Strict

There were 2 major forms of XHTML that were developed (technically there were three – HTML frames was the third, but they are no longer part of HTML5) – XHTML Transitional and XHTML Strict. XHTML Transitional was designed as an intermediate standard – a stepping stone – which would help people gradually move away from HTML towards the “real” standard that they wanted everyone to use, which was XHTML Strict.

XHTML developers would have to think about cleaner code

This meant that XHTML developers would have to think about valid, well-structured code – because XML is stricter in terms of syntax rules than HTML.

But then work then began on another specification called XHTML 2.0, which actually was not backwards compatible with the older version of HTML. But, the lack of backwards compatibility was justified because XHTML 2.0 was considered more logical and much better designed than the prior version.

Another group decided that XML was not the way to go

Some people working at Opera (creators of the Opera web browser), however, were not convinced that XML (which, in turn, meant XHTML) was the future language of the web. So, the group at Opera began working on a proof-of-concept specification that extended HTML forms, but that did not break backwards compatibility like the XHTML 2.0 specification. That spec turned into something called Web Forms 2.0, which then became a part of the HTML 5 specification.

The formation of the WHATWG group

Then the people working at Opera were joined by people from Mozilla (creators of the Firefox web browser) and this group, which was led by Ian Hickson from Opera, continued working on the specification in a group that was called the WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, www.whatwg.org). Apple also played a small part in the process as well.

Ian Hickson eventually went to work for Google, where he worked as an editor of HTML5 (which at that time was called Web Applications 1.0).

The W3C decided to go back to HTML

In 2006 the W3C decided that they had made a mistake in expecting the web world to move to XML (which of course meant XHTML 2.0 as well). Tim Berners-Lee was quoted as saying: “It is necessary to evolve HTML incrementally. The attempt to get the world to switch to XML, including quotes around attribute values and slashes in empty tags and namespaces, all at once didn’t work”.

Then, the HTML Working Group was brought back to life to further develop the HTML standard and they voted to use the WHATWG’s Web Applications specification as the basis for the new version of HTML. But, what was interesting about this was that the same specification was developed simultaneously by the W3C and the WHATWG, with the oversight of Ian Hickson.

The process of developing the HTML standard was pretty unorthodox because of the fact that the development of the standard was very open, and anyone could join the WHATWG mailing list and contribute to the spec. Every email sent to the group was actually read by Ian Hickson or the core WHATWG team. All ideas were considered by the team regardless of who those ideas came from. Other ideas were even found on Twitter and blogs around the web.

HTML5 versus XHTML 2.0

In 2009, the W3C stopped working on XHTML 2.0 and started to focus fully on HTML5, because it became clear that HTML5 was more practical than XHTML 2.0, since it would be backwards compatible unlike XHTML 2.0, and would not “break the web”. Also, the HTML5 working groups had representatives from all the major browser vendors, (by vendors we mean Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, etc.). And because HTML5 was just a specification with no meaning until support for it was built into popular browsers, the browser vendors had a big say in what parts of the HTML5 specification they were willing to support themselves.

The HTML5 specification is being developed by two groups

Because the HTML5 specification is being developed by both the W3C and WHATWG, there are different versions of the HTML 5 specification.

The official W3C snapshot is www.w3.org/TR/html5/ (this is the source that’s most often quoted), while http://dev.w3.org/html5/spec/ is the latest editor’s draft and can be changed.

The WHATWG group doesn’t version numbers, so the “5” in HTML5 is not there – instead, they just call their specification “HTML: the living standard.” You can see the WHATWG group’s HTML5 specification by going to http://whatwg.org/html. However, you should know that parts of the spec are experimental, and just because something is in the specification document does not mean that it has been implemented in an actual browser or even well thought out. But, the WHATWG specification does have some useful information regarding the implementation status of the features described in the spec in different browsers.

If you are interested in taking a look at the WHATWG specification then you probably want to look at http://developers.whatwg.org, because that page actually removes all the extra details that are intended for people who are actually going to implement the HTML standard – like browser vendors.

The complete WHATWG specifications can be found at http://www.whatwg.org/specs/web-apps/current-work/complete.html but be careful since it will put a heavy load on your browser because it’s a huge amount of information.

And that concludes our brief history of HTML 5 – hope this helps!

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