WHAT’s Going On? — Simon Willison analyzes the new WHAT Working Group, composed of representatives of three of the major four browser vendors.
On a broader level, what’s brewing in browser space is a war over what’s next. The web as a document viewing platform appears to be as good as it will get for a long time. The future is in web applications, and everyone has a different solution. Microsoft is betting heavily on its proprietary XAML and the forthcoming Longhorn technologies it will integrate with. W3C concerns are more interested in integrated solutions of XML, SVG, XForms, etc.
The reality is that right now, the web still revolves around HTML. The W3C has been trying to put it to bed for ages as it moves on to new, non-backwards compatible XML-based languages. But millions of sites and applications depend on it today. They’re not all going to find the money to upgrade to the Next Big Thing, when it seems the only thing coming next is fragmentation.
So the minds behind Opera, Mozilla, and Safari have formed a new working group called the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, or WHAT for short. The focus is to develop solutions that are extensions of vanilla HTML, in order to co-operate with today’s browsers instead of relying on non-existent future implementations.
What of XHTML? What of CSS? It’s increasingly obvious that while it’s possible to use them for applications, they’re not the best tools for the job. It’s unclear whether they’ll play a key part in any of the new strategies, or will exist only to complement in document-based settings. Most indications at present lean toward the latter.
The next chapter of the ongoing saga of the web is shaping up to be a brand new epic. What makes this battle different is that the major player is a well-established company with deep pockets, and the standards body that should be releasing definitive and practical technologies appears to be wrapped up in theoretical future technologies and ignoring the current problems web authors face.
If a group of alternative browser vendors can make a difference, when their combined total market share is still in the single digits, then the forming of WHAT might be a very important milestone one day. For now it’s still anyone’s guess where this battle will take us, although given the players, it’s not hard to draw unpleasant conclusions.