The Unbearable Lightness of HTML5 – or, the priority of constituencies versus the great dictator

LET’S DIG A BIT DEEPER into the latest conflict between web developers who are passionate about the future of HTML, and the WHATWG. (See Mat Marquis in Tuesday’s A List Apart, Responsive Images and Web Standards at the Turning Point, for context, and Jeremy Keith, Secret Src in Wednesday’s adactio.com, for additional clarification.)

The WHATWG was created to serve browser makers, while its product, HTML5, was designed to serve users first, designers (authors) next, browser makers (implementors) last according to the priority of constituencies, which is one of its founding design principles.

There is a tension between this principle of HTML5 (to serve users above designers above browser makers) and the reality of who is the master: namely, browser makers – especially Google, which pays Hixie, the editor of HTML5, his salary. That’s not a knock on Hixie (or Google), it’s just the reality.

One way the tension between principle and reality plays out is in not uncommon incidents like the one we’re reacting to now. According to the priority of constituencies, designer/developer feedback should be welcomed, if not outright solicited. In principle, if there is conflict between what designer/developers advise and what browser makers advise, priority should be given to the advice of designer/developers. After all, their needs matter more according to the priority of constituencies — and designer/developers are closer to the end-user (whose needs matter most) than are browser makers.

Solicitiation of and respect for the ideas of people who actually make websites for a living is what would happen if the HTML5-making activity had been organized according to its own priority of constituencies principle; but that kind of organization (committee organization) echoes the structure of the W3C, and the WHATWG arose largely because browser makers had grown unhappy with some aspects of working within the W3C. In reality, there is one “decider” — the editor of HTML5, Ian Hickson. His decisions are final, he is under no obligation to explain his rationales, and he need not prioritize developer recommendations above a browser maker’s — nor above a sandwich maker’s, if it comes to that. By design, Hixie is a free agent according to the structure he himself created, and his browser maker end-users (masters?) like it that way.

They like it that way because stuff gets done. In a way, browser makers are not unlike web developers, eager to implement a list of requirements. We designer/developers don’t like waiting around while an indecisive client endlessly ponders project requirements, right? Well, neither do browser makers. Just like us, they have people on payroll, ready to implement what the client requires. They can’t afford to sit around twiddling their digits any more than we can. In 2007, the entire world economy nearly collapsed. It is still recovering. Don’t expect any surviving business to emulate a country club soon.

So, has this latest friction brought us to a tipping point? Will anything change?

In theory, if we are frustrated with Mr Hickson’s arbitrary dictates or feel that they are wrong, we can take our ideas and our grievances to the W3C, who work on HTML5 in parallel with the WHATWG. We should probably try that, although I tend to think things will continue to work as they do now. The only other way things could change is if Hixie wakes up one morning and decides benevolent dictator is no longer a role he wishes to play. If I were in charge of the future of the web’s markup language, with not just final cut but every cut, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to rethink my role or give some of my power away. But perhaps I underestimate myself. And perhaps Hixie will consider the experiment.