In pace requiescat

Published July 8, 2009. Filed under: Pedantics, Web standards.

So the charter of the XHTML Working Group will be allowed to expire without renewal. This is a source of consternation for some, who feel that the W3C is perhaps sending conflicting messages — how long until we find out that HTML5 isn’t really the future, either? — and, perhaps, smug “I told you so” satisfaction for others.

I have little to add to either of those camps, so what follows here is nothing more than my rambling, disconnected thoughts on the news.

XHTML had it coming

In a way I feel like an old fart right about now, because I remember the day Zeldman had his crisis of faith over XHTML 2, fully six years ago, a crisis in which he apparently found himself agreeing with at least some of Mark’s complaints about where that specification was heading. It certainly is true that the XHTML 2 spec diverged too much from existing practice and shut out the very people who — if they’d implemented it — would’ve been key to wide adoption.

And it’s equally true that, though there were giants in the earth in those days, only a few actually put XHTML to its intended use; all these many years later, Jacques is still the only person I know of who’s publicly benefiting from XHTML on anything close to a daily basis (I do know of a few folks who do backend stuff with XHTML and an XML toolchain, but ironically many of them transform to HTML 4.01 before emitting the results to a browser). There are, of course, plenty of documents on the Web which display an XHTML DOCTYPE declaration, but there’s only so much lipstick to go around and the pig got pretty large toward the end.

XHTML’s “success”

Insofar as it encouraged workaday web professionals to recognize that there are such things as best practices independent of particular browser implementations, I think XHTML can be termed successful. Insofar as it got people thinking about the possibility of a better Web ahead of us, I think XHTML can be termed successful. Insofar as it changed the popular conception of professional web design and thrust standards into the forefront (Apple — Apple! — now touts standards support as a feature in marketing materials), I think XHTML can be termed successful.

It’s hard, today, to remember just what a big deal it was to take that leap and demand that browsers adapt to us rather than vice-versa, and XHTML — even if only through the token gestures of closed tags and quoted attributes — formed a big part of that. It was the flag planted in the ground, the line drawn in the sand for an army of downtrodden designers and developers who finally decided to stop retreating.

But the price of success, for new technology in this modern world, is a horde of squealing fanboys. And lord, were there ever fanboys. Thence came a whole host of memes, misconceptions and misinformation — “XHTML is more semantic”, “XHTML is more accessible”, the whole lot of them — shouted so loud and so long, by those who had (they thought) been to the mountain and seen the promised land, that the truth of the matter was obscured. The real debates over the merits of this or that markup were then confined to an ever-shrinking circle which, unchecked and largely unnoticed, engaged in ever-increasing pedantry. In this respect, XHTML was a failure.

The uncertain future

The way forward now, we are told, is HTML5, which began promisingly enough with the old new idea of standardization, of gathering and documenting the practices and ideas which had become established and common in the years since the relevant specifications were last updated. It has, like all fledgling web standards, since grown into a larger effort seeking to innovate and invent new and better ways to build the Web. In the former sense, I’m quite certain it would have been a success. In the latter sense, I suppose I ought to be skeptical.

But the plain fact is that the effort is currently bogged down in the sort of self-parodying high-school drama I probably should have come to expect (OMG! Did you HEAR what Hixie said to Mozilla about how Apple won’t bring Theora to the party? I’m TOTALLY unfriending Steve Jobs!!!). And so, for my part, I find it increasingly difficult to give a shit.

For the present, I will continue to use HTML 4.01, as I’ve been doing quite happily for some time now. And perhaps when that far-off day arrives, I’ll update to HTML5 and take advantage of all the new features Firefox 8 and Safari 7 and Opera 15 and IE 12 will offer me. Or maybe I’ll just head on down to the cellars and wall myself in, brick by brick, with a fine old cask and my nostalgia, crying out: “For the love of God, Mountain View!”