The Journal of Open Computing
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à Welcome from the Editor
à Open Source Groundswell
à Jon Hall on Standards
à The Future of HTML
à Metadata Update
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The Present and Future of HTML

Interview with Michael Kane

Michael Kane develops and administers web applications and sites at the World Bank in Washington, DC, and is a member of the Capital PC User Group (CPCUG) Internet User Support Team. I caught up with him in late April 1998 and grilled him about the present and future of the HTML standard.

Journal of Open Computing: Could you bring us up to date on recent happenings in the area of HTML standardization? Are MS and Netscape toeing the W3C line, or are they going renegade again? Please comment on the future of HTML 4 and CSS, from the standpoint of its emergence from W3C and supposed compliance with it by MS/Netscape.

Michael Kane: The Web has developed at an incredible pace. I believe we are seeing the end of the Wild West phase, where anything goes as long as it has the word "Web" in it. Over the last couple of years, Netscape and then Microsoft could get away with departing, or even ignoring, standards such as HTML 2.0 and then HTML 3.0. In fact, they were pushed to do so by developers caught up in the fever to produce ever-hotter web pages. There was little accountability; never mind that it would be months before even half the browsers on the Web could see these hot new features. Or that some of the features would break unsupported browsers. Just use the new browser for the demo, and "boom" - project approved.

Then the inevitable began to happen: the customers, CIOs, business managers, bosses, in short the people writing the checks began seeing and hearing about the problems caused by non-standard tags. They also were not happy at being asked to choose sides in the browser wars or to pay for dual-development. Add to that the sudden focus on Return On Investment (ROI, meaning "Where's the payback?"), and developers were forced to consider the mainstream first, not the elite.

The cool thing is that once the fire dies down, we all benefit. The standards bodies, in this case the W3C, realize that they cannot sit on high and proclaim rigid standards from the mountaintop. A standards body cannot and should not keep pace with the cutting edge, but it has to move at a pace approaching that of market demand. Thus, HTML 4.0 is coming right on the heels of HTML 3.2, which quickly followed HTML 3.0. Netscape and Microsoft do not care much about what the W3C says or does, but are consumed with preserving or gaining market share. They will use whatever tactics further their own cause. To some extent, I think they now see it as being in their own interests to pay more than lip service to standards.

Only to some extent, of course. While Microsoft may basically give up on JScript (MS uses JavaScript on their own site now), they continue to joust on Java. Netscape is trying to convince the media that they aren't dead yet, so they are a little distracted at the moment. But I think that HTML 4.0, including CSS, will fare well in the next version of the big two browsers. I'm pretty sure we'll see some areas of difference, but overall I think the browsers will converge as far as how they render web pages.

JoOC: What's your take on the continuing effectiveness of WIP (the Web Interoperability Pledge - Are users still exerting the kind of pressure that's needed to keep HTML standard?

MK: I would have to say that yes, needed pressure is being exerted, but I do not think that WIP itself is having a significant impact. Developers are, on the whole, self-centered creatures. They will use whatever tools they perceive as best for them, not the industry, to be blunt. They have learned it is in their own interest to pressure the big vendors into honoring standards more than the vendors have done. I think that is where the real pressure is coming from.

JoOC:: What sort of impact do you foresee XML as having any organizations and individuals doing a lot of HTML coding?

MK: It is still a bit early, but I definitely think that XML (eXtensible Markup Language) will change the nature of the game, for organizations more than individuals. XML will affect intranet and business-to-business development primarily. I do not think it will replace HTML, as some people have claimed, since they are different things. One of the most powerful aspects of HTML is how easy it is to learn and use. It has brought to the masses the ability to quickly, easily, and inexpensively share information with the world.

XML is closer to SGML, which is technically more powerful than HTML by far but because of its complexity it remains a limited tool. If it becomes widely accepted and practiced, XML will reduce some of the friction between developers and standards bodies because it allows developers to define their own extensions, so to speak.

JoOC:: What future cruxes and chafe points in the evolution of the HTML standard do you foresee?

MK: I don't think there will be any major problems with respect to HTML standards. Problems will come with the implementation of applications and objects. I am specifically thinking of Java, here, but also COM, ORB, any method for embedding applications into web pages. But even there I don't think we'll have a big deal.

Eventually, of course, HTML as we know it will simply go away, though. Rather, I should say it will disappear into the background, become transparent to authors, much as WordStar or Ventura codes disappeared. We might not be so far from that time. On one hand, WYSIWYG code-generators such as Front Page are increasingly popular, and everyday office applications publish as HTML with one click. On the other hand, tools such as Lotus Notes hide the code even farther, not even producing HTML files but having the server component deliver the document in a format dictated by the client that requests it.

All views expressed in this article by Mr. Kane are his and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person or organization.

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