W3C and WHATWG – Who’s the authority on HTML?

Way back in 2004 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) decided to abandon HTML and shift its focus to XHTML. Concerned with this move, individuals from Apple, Mozilla, and Opera formed the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) to continue the development of HTML. Notable specifications by WHATWG are HTML (formerly HTML5), the DOM and Fetch standards, and Storage Standards (localStorage).

One might ask: 2004? That’s a long time ago. Why is this story relevant 14 years later at the beginning of 2018?

A new player enters the game

On December 11th, 2017 the WHATWG published the blog post “Further working mode changes” detailing a new Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) policy and the establishment of a Steering Group. Furthermore, Microsoft joined, hence completing the organization. Now, all four big players are part of WHATWG: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla. Each company holding a chair of the Steering Group.

Two specs for one language

While WHATWG advanced HTML, the W3C hasn’t been sitting idle. According to Wikipedia (“WHATWG History”) and a thread on Reddit from earlier this year (“What is the difference between the W3C and the WHATWG?”), the W3C forked the WHATWG HTML Living Standard creating a second HTML specification. This resulted in two separate, but strongly interwoven standards — one specifically by the browser vendors, the other one by the original standards organization.

The past, the present, and the future

W3C endorsed the latest changes to WHATWG in an official blog post, hoping for a greater collaboration between both organizations. Michael Champion, part of the WHATWG Steering Group, states on Twitter:

[…] Living Standards are what "evergreen" browsers require, those of us who resisted have seen the light. But those who didn't think the Living Standards needed a patent policy have also seen the light I suppose. This reset is cold water on lots of old flame wars.

Tweet by @mc2hampion, written on 2017-12-12 at 08:00 AM.

But many members of the web community still have strong opinions about the different approaches. One of the authors of the W3C HTML Specification, Steve Faulkner, sparked an interesting discussion regarding semantics with a follow up about accessibility by Adrian Roselli. The W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) seems to be worried about WHATWG rendering W3C HTML obsolete, since all major browser developers are now part of WHATWG. But the comments on W3C’s blog post and the aforementioned Reddit thread are especially heated.

At the moment, it seems to be good advice to follow the extensive MDN Web Docs which references both WHATWG and W3C.