No (Content) Negotiation

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Virginia DeBolt provides a really nice grouping of links to writings related to the WHATWG. Among the writings are those related to accessibility, and there’s nothing I can add to this discussion that isn’t isn’t handled succinctly and completely by others.

I did want to jump into the discussion related to XHTML, though. Dean Edridge wrote a general note of dissatisfaction with the WHATWG effort, including perhaps too much influence by Apple, Opera, and Google. I could add to this list by saying that Microsoft’s non-involvement contributes an undue influence by Microsoft.

Edridge also started another thread, about XHTML5. He wrote:

I don’t think that support for XHTML5 should be optional. Specifying
that user-agents may support only one format, but supporting both is
“encouraged” is insufficient and will only lead to a lack of support for
XHTML5 like we had with XHTML1 [1]

We’ve been down this road before where support for application/xhtml+xml was only an “opt in” for user-agents. That’s the main reason we have less than 100 valid XHTML websites today. [2]
People wont be able to use XHTML5 if there’s no support for it.

Can this please be changed to:
…..Implementations MUST support these two formats.

I found it fascinating that so few sites are ‘pure’ XHTML. This site is now one. Last week I turned off site negotiation and serve up pages with the proper MIME type of “application/xhtml+xml”. This means, of course, this page isn’t viewable by IE, which wants to process the page as XML, rather than interpret it as XHTML.

What’s more interesting, though, is how much push back Edridge is getting on, what to me, is a very valid request. The responses have ranged from the ‘undue burden’ this places on devices like desktop widgets, to how Edridge should try to contain his passion–after all, some people are just raising issues.

What astonishes me, though, is how much this group is willing to bend over for companies that have the resources to make these changes, but it is is not convenient from a business perspective to do so. In other words, they can’t turn it into profit, so why spend time on the tech?

I integrate the use of SVG into my sites. I plan on more heavily integrating it into this site. I can do so because I made one fundamental design decision: this site supports released specifications, not specific browsers. SVG is the one and only graphics system capable of giving something like Flash–a proprietary technology–a run for its money. SVG with XHTML, ECMAScript, and CSS3, combined, could do amazing things regardless of whether you’re using a widget, cell phone, or browser on a computer. Why on earth would we deliberately sabotage this as a goal, just because it’s not convenient from a business perspective for some companies who are making enormous amounts of money, and who could easily encompass such effort without breaking a sweat?

Then the argument comes around to, the fact that there are few sites implementing XHTML tells us that people don’t want it. No, it tells us that tools aren’t doing a good job of ensuring XHTML compliant pages. That people don’t understand about content negotiation. That IE has effectively undermined XHTML while supposedly pretending to be a friend of the specification. This is a true chicken and egg story: which comes first? The demand for the technology which then generates support for the technology? Or support for the technology, which will generate demand?

Regardless of whether it’s XHTML, or accessibility, or support for SVG, a standards group has the responsibility to move a technology forward–not provide excuses for keeping it rigidly locked in place, while browser makers happily skip ahead using proprietary technologies.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh, but I’ve never seen a web specification group that is so happy to make a race for the bottom as the WHATWG group is.



I did like what the Opera Spec Wrangler had to say. And it is important to keep in mind that much of the work on these specs is done by volunteers. Having said this, though, I am seeing far too much willingness to say, “Oh, well we don’t want to burden the user agents so we’ll make this optional”.

Why even bother with a specification if it doesn’t move us forward? Just to make the web easier to process by a search engine? To give companies a “get out of standards” free card?

What is moving forward? Let’s build some real accessibility into the new markups. Let’s ensure that user agents can handle the specifications that have been released, including XHTML and SVG. Let’s do things right, rather than expediently.