Bruce Lawson's personal site

Ten years of WHATWG

A little over ten years ago, on 4 June 2004, Opera employee Ian “Hixie” Hickson sent a mail titled WHAT open mailing list announcement announcing

a loose, unofficial, and open collaboration of Web browser manufacturers and interested parties. The group aims to develop specifications based on HTML and related technologies to ease the deployment of interoperable Web Applications

Ten years is a long time, especially so in software, but nevertheless, the achievements of WHATWG have been remarkable. Hixie wrote

The working group intends to ensure that all its specifications address backwards compatibility concerns, clearly provide reasonable transition strategies for authors, and specify error handling behavior to ensure interoperability even in the face of documents that do not comply to the letter of the specifications.

Core aspects of the web platform were never adequately specified. XMLHttpRequest, for example, was shipped in IE5 in March 1999, and reverse-engineered and shipped in Firefox, Opera, Safari and iCab, but never actually documented until Anne van Kesteren co-specified it in WHATWG in a Working Draft of 5 April 2006. Anne’s currently working on the Fetch Standard, which defines something as basic as “requests, responses, and the process that binds them” and the Encoding Standard:

While encodings have been defined to some extent, implementations have not always implemented them in the same way, have not always used the same labels, and often differ in dealing with undefined and former proprietary areas of encodings. This specification attempts to fill those gaps so that new implementations do not have to reverse engineer encoding implementations of the market leaders and existing implementations can converge.

Of course, the poster children of WHATWG are the slew of new APIs that “HTML5” brings us – Web Workers, Web Sockets, native video and audio etc etc. There have been mistakes along the way (of course there have, in a decade!). Last year, Hixie told me

My biggest mistake…there are so many to choose from! pushState() is my favourite mistake, for the sheer silliness of ending up with an API that has a useless argument and being forced to keep it because the feature was so desired that people used it on major sites before we were ready to call it done, preventing us from changing lest we break it. postMessage()‘s security model is so poorly designed that it’s had academic papers written about how dumb I was, so that’s a pretty big mistake. (It’s possible to use postMessage() safely. It’s just that the easiest thing to do is not the safe way, so people get it wrong all the time.) The appcache API is another big mistake. It’s the best example of not understanding the problem before designing a solution, and I’m still trying to fix that mess.

But to me, the biggest triumph of WHATWG has been error-handling and interoperability (actually, two sides of the same coin). We’ve moved from a vision of the future where everything was supposed to be XML and browsers were to stop parsing if they met malformed markup, to a present where every browser knows how to construct an identical DOM from the most mangled/tangled HTML. We’re moving to a world where interoperability is paramount, and where specifications are made in the open, in constant consultation with developers (for example, Service Workers, Web Components) based on real use-cases.

I think the existence and the work of WHATWG has secured the viability of the web platform. Happy 10th birthday. And thanks.

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