HTML5 Media Specs

CNet story on HTML5

Stephen Shankland of CNet published an article, Growing pains afflict HTML5 standardization. He sent me an interview email and quoted a small portion of the response. I believe he quoted me fairly. However, I wanted to publish the entire interview, so you can see the material not included.

—begin interview—

> –What are Hickson’s shortcomings?

The issue is less about one individual’s shortcomings and more about a single individual given what amounts to dictatorial powers (a phrase Ian has himself used) about what is, or is not, in HTML5. Ian is a very capable person, but he believes that the best, quickest way to create a specification is if one person makes all the decisions about what is in a specification. Ian also has strong, rather inflexible, opinions about the future of the web, and the future of HTML. One person with such strong, inflexible opinions, and with virtually unlimited control over the HTML5 specification contents, is not a good thing.

Ian also has had little exposure to web communities outside of the browser developer community. In fact, he believes that the Implementers, as he calls them, should have final say in all aspects of HTML5. Yet there are groups of people–web developers and designers, tool and application builders, folks concerned about accessibility, eBook creators and authors, and so on–just as impacted by what happens to HTML5 as the browser developers. Many from these communities have had to fight, sometimes for years, to add even the simplest modification to the HTML5 specification.

The situation is made worse because there are two versions of the HTML5 specification: the one at the W3C, which I think of as the official version, and a “shadow” version at the WhatWG. If Ian’s opinion is overridden in the W3C HTML Working Group, he’ll reluctantly make the change in the W3C version of the specification, but leave the text unchanged in the WhatWG version.

The existence of both documents confuses the web community about which document _is_ the HTML5 specification. When the specifications were the same, this wasn’t as much of a problem. Now that there are several significant differences between the specs, though, the existence of both is a very serious issue.

> –What’s the best way to rectify the situation?

In my opinion, the HTML5 specification would be vastly improved if there were a small team of experienced specification editors, rather than one single person given such unlimited control. I’m not sure, though, if Ian would be willing to work with a team, or to give up any editorial control in the specification. He may choose to quit, instead.

There was also an early Working Group decision to give both Ian and another person editing powers over the HTML5 specification, and this earlier decision has been used as a barricade against the idea of bringing in new editors. However, the other individual who was once involved with HTML5, quit sometime ago. His quitting should have opened the door to adding new editors.

You’re a writer. You know how important it is to have others review your material—to catch typos or fix awkward or confusing phrases; to question assumptions you’ve made, or whether your opinion may be overly influencing how you perceive an event.

This type of collaboration is just as important in a specification. More so, because the fewer people with actual authoring capability in the specification, the more likely personal bias has undue influence, and the fewer needs of the community are met.

> –Is there still a role for the WHATWG? If it were to disappear tomorrow, what would happen to HTML5 development?

The WhatWG is an unusual group. It gives the appearance of being egalitarian because anyone can subscribe to the WhatWG email list and make suggestions about the WhatWG documents. However, actual membership in the WhatWG was by invitation, and includes a small handful of people, some of whom have quit working with the WhatWG years ago. Yes, anyone in the WhatWG email lists can make a suggestion, but only if they manage to convince Ian of the worth of the modification does it get incorporated into to the specification.

Ian can supposedly be overridden by the small, closed group of actual WhatWG members, but again: many of this group have quit working with the WhatWG, and the rest, well, their interests aren’t necessarily the same interests of many in the web community.

At this time, I believe that the existence of the WhatWG does more harm than good. Its existence has fractured the community interested in HTML5, leading to the contentiousness that has dogged the HTML5 effort. The existence of duplicate documents in both the W3C and the WhatWG confuses the web community. That the WhatWG documents now differ from the W3C documents, further exacerbates the problem.

If the WhatWG were to disappear tomorrow, work on the HTML5 specification would continue. I believe that, after the initial shake up, work would progress on the HTML5 specification more rapidly. If there is only one group of people working on the HTML5 specification, and only one document, people would have to work through their differences. There wouldn’t be an ‘escape route’ for a subset of the people, and there would no longer be “the WhatWG” folks, and the “W3C folks”. It would be just people, working on HTML5.

> –Has the W3C truly shouldered the burden of HTML5 standardization?

In my opinion, once references to the WhatWG email lists, documents, issues database, FAQ, and so on are removed from the W3C HTML5 specification, and the W3C truly accepts ownership of the specification, then the organization will have fully shouldered the burden of HTML5 standardization.

> –What are some specific examples of HTML features that you felt Hickson handled poorly?

First, I want to mention some of the HTML5 features I believe Ian has handled well in the spec. He worked to standardize the browser object model, to develop audio and video elements that can support multiple codecs, incorporated SVG and MathML into HTML, helped clarify some items left ambiguous in HTML4, and a host of other good work.

The thing is, though, Ian agreed with most of these items. When he agrees with you, he can be very efficient. Even if he disagrees with you, but he personally likes and respects you, he’ll be more amenable to listening to your feedback.

However, if he doesn’t agree with you, and you’re not part of the group with which he surrounds himself, he can be extremely obstinate about modifying the HTML5 specification. To the point of absurdity at times.

Case in point is how Microdata came about. A couple of years back, the RDFa community wanted to incorporate modifications into HTML5 so that RDFa could be used in HTML, as well as XHTML. We were asked to provide use cases, and we did; a significant number of use cases, probably more than has been provided for any other aspect of HTML5.

Ian responded to the use cases and requirements not by agreeing, and adding support for RDfa; not by saying no, RDFa shouldn’t be incorporated directly into the HTML5 specification. What he did, instead, was invent an entirely new way of handling inline metadata called Microdata. He had added Microdata to the HTML5 specification without once counter-proposing it as an alternative, and without _any_ discussion within the community (WhatWG or W3C). Ian didn’t like RDFa, therefore Ian created something new.

Eventually the RDFa community realized that incorporating RDFa directly into the HTML5 was unnecessary and added to what is an overly large document. A member of the community, Manu Sporny, created a separate document that discusses how to incorporate RDFa into HTML5, which is on a separate publication track.

Several folks in the W3C HTML WG suggested that Microdata also isn’t an essential component of the HTML5 specification, and should be split into a separate document. Not eliminated, just split off. Ian disagreed.

Eventually we ended up having to go to a poll and get a co-chair decision to split Microdata into a separate specification. However, if you look at the WhatWG version of the HTML5 document, Microdata is still incorporated.

This is an example of a major change in the spec that was not handled well by Ian, and is still not being handled well by Ian.

Another instance of an HTML feature I felt has been handled extremely poorly is a single attribute that has been under discussion for over three years: the table summary attribute.

The table summary attribute is a way for people to provide a helpful description of a complex HTML table so that those people using assistive devices, such as screen readers, could better understand how to navigate through the table. It is optional, and should only be used with complex tables.

Ian felt that the attribute was used incorrectly, and therefore he deprecated it (or, in HTML5 terms, made it “obsolete but conforming”). Many in the accessibility community protested because, in their opinion, there is no other way to incorporate this useful information so that it would be available to those using screen readers or screen magnifiers, without it also being exposed to those not using these devices (and who didn’t need this information, because they could actually see the table).

Instead, Ian added a convoluted section to the table element that describes numerous ways that people could incorporate text into their content so that this information is provided without having to use the summary attribute, because, in Ian’s opinion, the summary attribute has not been used correctly and is therefore harmful. However, it is not within the scope of the HTML specification to tell people what they should use in text surrounding HTML tables. It is also not within the scope of the HTML specification to tell people how to use elements, if such usage isn’t coached in such a way that the usage is a requirement for validity. An HTML specification is not a user guide.

For three years the debate on this simple little attribute has been ongoing without resolution. It’s still a pending issue in the W3C issues database. It’s still waiting resolution.

Three years. One single attribute. Tell me something: wouldn’t a reasonable person decide at some point that perhaps if the accessibility community really wants this item so badly, that it should be kept in the HTML5 specification as a valid, conforming attribute? With an understanding that the accessibility community then has an obligation to ensure it’s used correctly in the future?

At what point in time in three years did this item go beyond reason?

> Sorry, one more–since I’m not a technical expert, could you try to boil down the hidden attribute technology issue?

The hidden attribute originated as an attribute named irrelevant. It was created as a way to mark “irrelevant” web page elements that are not meant to be displayed by the user agents. Why not displayed? Because when the element is marked with the irrelevant attribute, it’s not relevant at that time. It was renamed to hidden because a) people were confused at the irrelevant concept, and b) many people can’t spell the word.

The hidden attribute functions exactly the same as setting the CSS display property to “none” for an element. Whatever element is so marked is removed from the page flow, and is not rendered by any user agent (browser, screen reader, or otherwise). To display the element, you have to use JavaScript, just as you do with the CSS display property.

Where the hidden attribute supposedly differs from the CSS display property is that there is “semantics” associated with the hidden attribute, not associated with the CSS display property. The hidden attribute marks “irrelevant material”. Yet what is irrelevant about page content that is still active? According to the spec:

“Elements in a section hidden by the hidden attribute are still active, e.g. scripts and form controls in such sections still execute and submit respectively. Only their presentation to the user changes.”

Truly irrelevant page contents should be created and added to the web page when needed, and removed from the page when no longer needed. That’s the way you handle “irrelevant page contents”.

In effect, there are no semantics associated with the hidden attribute. Its use is purely for presentational purposes. And since we decided long ago that we’re not going to tightly integrate presentation with structure in HTML, not only is hidden redundant, its existence is counter to 15 years of hard work to eliminate such tight integration.

–end of interview

I don’t necessarily agree with Shankland that the issues are minor. I also don’t agree with anyone who says that the browser companies are the only parties that matter when it comes to HTML.

True, the browser companies can be a major roadblock if they decide not to implement a feature. At the same time, though, it’s essential to take into consideration the needs of the entire web community, not just the browser companies.

The current HTML5 situation is little different than an IT group in a company telling the end users that they, the IT group, will decide what gets implemented and when, and the users should just shut up, and be happy to get what they get.

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