THANKS TO THE WORK of the WHAT WG, the orations of Steve, the acclaim of developers, and a dash of tasteful pamphleteering, the W3C finally has a hit technology on its hands. Indeed, it has a cluster of hot technologies, the latest incarnation of what we’ve been calling “web standards” since we began fighting for them in 1998, when browser support for HTML, CSS, and JavaScript was inconsistent, incomplete, and incompatible, and the kingmakers of the day couldn’t have cared less. Moreover, after 13 years, the W3C has finally learned that it’s okay to market to your constituents—okay to actively encourage standards adoption.

Hence the HTML5 logo effort, intended as an identity system for all the hot new standards technologies—and initially bogged down by a controversy in our circle about theW3C muddying the waters. The actual muddying began when Steve Jobs announced Apple’s support for HTML5 by pointing to web stuff created with CSS3. In other words, the inaccurate use of “HTML5″ to cover HTML and non-HTML technologies coincided with the surge of interest in those technologies under that inaccurate label. Which is why some thought leaders in our community have reckoned that the business community’s confusion about what HTML5 actually means doesn’t matter so much, as long as they are clamoring for great sites, accessibly designed with web standards—and as long as developers know the difference between HTML5 and, say, CSS3.

In any case, soon after the standards digerati declared the HTML5 banner launch a communications fiasco, it emerged that the launch was actually merely a communications snafu.

An updated FAQ makes it clear that HTML5 means HTML5, that CSS3 is not part of the HTML5 specification, and so on. The W3C’s clarification allows the standards organization to have it both ways in a fashion acceptable to all. In times past, the W3C argued passionately within its own walls during the creation of web standards, only to passively release them as “recommendations” to a world that often ignored them—the development of XHTML 2 in the pure absence of worldly interest was probably the culmination of that phase. But today’s W3C has learned better. It has learned to engage its constituents and to seek approval beyond its immediate constituents—i.e. to reach out to the business community, not just to the authors of O’Reilly and Peachpit books. Its “HTML5″ identity effort represents a reasonable and meritorious effort to cash in on, prolong, and extend the world’s already keen interest in HTML5 and related technologies and practices. Meantime, the little FAQ page and other minor editorial clarifications allow the W3C to pacify its knowledgeable critics and duck the charge that it is blurring the lines between HTML, CSS, and other technologies.

Now that the story appears to be heading purposefully in a single direction, a kink in the works was inevitable.

That kink is also not surprising and not entirely unanticipated. Just when the W3C figures out that HTML5 is hot, the WHAT Working Group (the splinter group that created the actual HTML5 specification in the first place) has decided that HTML is the new HTML5:

  1. The HTML specification will henceforth just be known as “HTML”, with the URL (We will also continue to maintain the Web Applications 1.0 specification that contains HTML and a number of related APIs like Web Storage, Web Workers, and Server-Sent Events.)
  2. The WHATWG HTML spec can now be considered a “living standard”. It’s more mature than any version of the HTML specification to date, so it made no sense for us to keep referring to it as merely a draft. We will no longer be following the “snapshot” model of spec development, with the occasional “call for comments”, “call for implementations”, and so forth.

Those who are surprised should remember that the HTML5 doctype references “HTML” with no version number. In the thinking of its creators, HTML5 was always just HTML. It looked backward (the first web page ever written would be valid HTML5 with the addition of a doctype) and forward. It would continue to evolve. The WHAT WG gave itself the job of steering and updating HTML, while the W3C took on the task of maintaining milestones (a task it will continue to perform).

In practice, the WHATWG has basically been operating like this for years, and indeed we were going to change the name last year but ended up deciding to wait a bit since people still used the term “HTML5″ a lot. However, the term is now basically being used to mean anything Web-standards-related, so it’s time to move on!

To those inside the circle of trust, there is no contradiction here. The W3C will doubtless continue to market HTML5, and, for a time, design technologists will continue to write HTML5 books and teach HTML5 classes, if only to acknowledge HTML’s new capabilities and to clearly mark the break from the technologies and practices of the past. Eventually, quite probably, the WHAT WG’s view will take hold, and we will view HTML as a living specification.

Meantime, we’ll take 5.

Thanks to J. David Eisenberg for the nudge.