Microsoft has re-engaged with others in the computing industry in the area of Web standards--but its return is not without friction.
A number of allies--notably Mozilla, Opera, Apple, and Google--have been working for years to refashion Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and a host of associated technologies to make the Web a more powerful foundation for applications and more sophisticated sites. Microsoft now has joined in the effort, but it doesn't always see eye to eye when hashing out details of the upcoming HTML5 with Mozilla and a central individual in the standards process.
One point of debate is the fact that two organizations are involved: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group. Another is the process by which new Web technologies move from concept to standardization and support in browsers.
Fundamentally, Microsoft prefers a more formal, buttoned-down process that's somewhat at odds with today's free-wheeling Web standards practice. Existing players and Microsoft are still getting used to each other.
Organizations often jockey for influence through standards groups, and HTML is no exception. Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager of Internet Explorer, didn't call for an end to the WHATWG, but he did make it clear Microsoft believes the W3C's working group is the center of activity.
"The W3C is the HTML5 standards body," Hachamovitch said, pointing to WHATWG's absence from Wikipedia's entry for standards groups as evidence that it's not one.
Hachamovitch's view, though, is somewhat at odds with that of Ian Hickson, who is the editor of the W3C's HTML5 specification, a WHATWG participant, and a former Opera employee who now works for Google. Hickson sees a continuing role for WHATWG, a group that came into being after the W3C's earlier--and now rescinded--decision against advancing HTML in favor of an incompatible technology called XHTML 2.0.
"So long as the W3C doesn't screw up again, I expect the WHATWG to just continue happily working with the W3C," Hickson said. "There's no WHATWG vs. W3C here. In fact the two groups share channels; for example the WHATWG version of the spec has a 'submit review comments' tool that actually submits comments to the W3C bug database."
"The WHATWG will continue to be attractive to a lot of developers (and non-developers, like content authors) as a place to participate because of the relatively low barriers to entry," added Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering for Firefox backer Mozilla. "Web developers have a long memory: many will want to see the W3C bring HTML5 to a successful completion before they are confident that a Web-focused W3C and an engaged Microsoft are here to stay."
In April, employees from Google, Opera, Mozilla, and Apple met and concluded "the WHATWG still served a valuable role", according to Hickson's account of the meeting. Specifically, WHATWG provides "a lightweight process for experimentation" and "an established 'escape hatch' in the hopefully unlikely event of a failure in the W3C's HTML working group," he said.
There's no formal interaction mechanism between the W3C and WHATWG, Hickson said, but the two groups are linked. "In practice, most of the people heavily involved in the WHATWG are also heavily involved in the W3C HTML Working Group," Hickson said.
New technology views
Another area of some tension concerns how new standards should arrive in the real world. Today, browsers build in new technologies before there's agreement on how to best design them, or even whether they should be a standard at all. Microsoft prefers standardization to happen earlier in this process so developers don't have to worry about coding different versions of the same pages to accommodate different browsers.
Microsoft is agitating for "same markup," described this way: "Web browsers should render the same markup--the same HTML, same CSS, and same script--the same way. That's simply not the case today. Enabling the same markup to work the same across different browsers is as crucial for HTML5's success as performance."
But today's practice, while messy and plagued with incompatibilities, reflects the notion that it's a good idea to test new technologies in the real world before solidifying them as a real standard.
One example Hachamovitch showed to illustrate developer hardship is Mozilla's decision to hold off on supporting Web Sockets, a Web technology designed to improve communications between Web browsers and servers.
"Unfortunately, the spec itself is still under revision. WebSockets did ship in Chrome with version 4 and I'm told by Chrome developers that it's going to be included in Chrome 5, without changes. Unfortunately, the version that Google included in Chrome doesn't reflect the current draft," said Mozilla Director of Evangelism Chris Blizzard. "We want to ship it because the promise of WebSockets is great, but we'll have to see if it's stable and safe enough to do so."
Shaver defended the process. "As long as Chrome tracks the evolution of the standard, we don't all have to decide to ship it at the same time. We have patches under way as well, and they've led to spec feedback, so as far as I can see the system works," he said.
Shaver had some advice for Microsoft, too, in bringing new Web standards to fruition in a way that would help developers.
"It's been great to see Microsoft back at the table on this stuff. I'd love to see them share more information about the parts of HTML5 and related specifications that are interesting to them, and their intent to implement, since I think that would lend a lot of weight to their commitment to HTML5 and the Web in general as a platform," Shaver said.
One example is Canvas, an element of HTML5 that lets the browser draw 2D graphics. "Canvas is a tremendously valuable part of the modern Web platform, so having support for it in IE would be great," Shaver said.
Microsoft isn't committing to that particular technology, but the company hinted it's likely.
"Canvas is one of a few different Web graphics technologies. All of Internet Explorer 9's graphics and text and rendering will be hardware accelerated. We've demonstrated support for many parts of HTML5 to date, and will have more to announce as we update the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview," the company said in a statement. That language is suspiciously similar to what it said about SVG support before that actually arrived in the IE9 platform preview.
That platform preview is one of the biggest changes in Microsoft's behavior. Earlier versions of IE were developed farther behind closed doors, but Microsoft is releasing prototype software much earlier and is explicitly seeking feedback from Web developers. That engagement gives it much more clout in standards discussions: it's doing more than just paying lip service to the new Web standards.