improving HTML

The W3C has restructured some working groups in the Interaction Domain. The new HTML working group is co-chaired by Dan Connolly of W3/MIT and Chris Wilson from Microsoft.

Both WHATWG and W3C are pursuing an improvement in HTML while simultaneously adding new features. My reading of charts seems to indicate the following:

  • WHATWG is focusing primarily on disambiguation of the HTML spec to trigger developer adoption, with new features as a secondary goal.
  • W3C is focusing primarily on new features to trigger market adoption with disambiguation/improvment as a secondary goal

Over the last few years, as my interest in usability has grown, I have also become curious about the issues surrounding how technology becomes adopted by society. Contrary to intuition, when a new technology becomes available, society at large takes a long time to adopt it. When zippers became available, it took 100 years before they became popular in clothing. Zippers offered a new and clearly superior technique for fastening over buttons, however, despite garment fastening consistently being one of the primary use cases for zippers, it took a long time before society actually started using zippers. (I recommend Evolution of Useful Things.)

While I’m glad for the effort of the W3C and WHATWG, and even look forward to participating in some of that work, I’m a bit cautious regarding their expected outcomes. What is the plan for pursuing adoption? I’m not convinced that adding new features is enough of an incentive to trigger market adoption because that model doesn’t fit the historical record very well. If there’s anything I’m learning, it’s that constant iterative improvement that is responsive to previous failure is the single most important process to improve technology with regard to market and societal adoption. Seeing the future is harder than seeing the past.

The WHATWG has a huge jumpstart over the W3C on discovering what the problems with the original HTML were. I sort of think they would be better off in a Firefox kind of methodology: spend defined periods of time alternating between fixing past faults and adding new features. Shorten the feedback loop to discourage hegemonious implementations from running the market.

The WHATWG has active involvement from browser vendors, and many content producers and developers. W3C HTML WG has just started, and probably has the most inclusive participant policy to date. Anyone can become an “invited expert” by successfully filling out a few forms. I’m currently in the middle of this process. The group’s co-chair is from Microsoft, but I believe Microsoft’s presence is completely absent in the WHATWG processes. While IE7 and the team that worked on it has focused on improving IE to become more conformant to interoperable standards, the legacy of IE6 and Microsoft’s historical commitment to open standards weigh heavily in my mind. What dynamics will determine how these groups work together?

I suppose we’ll see what happens in the months and years to follow.

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