(X)HTML Wars (The History of HTML)

One of the most used languages in the web developers arsenal is Hyper Text Markup Language or the humble HTML. Where did this technology come from? Where is it going? I would like to trace its history and roots back to a time long ago where tags were tags and the web browser was the emperor.
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In a galaxy far, far away.

Our history lesson begins back in the year 1991 with the first mention of ‘HTML’ in a document called ‘HTML Tags’ released by physicist Tim Berners-Lee, an independent contractor of then CERN. The nature of the original specs for HTML was to allow a language to provide dynamic markup or formatting to web pages. At this stage this basically amounted to producing a language to define standards of ‘bold’,’italics’,etc. For the next few years draft after draft were thrown around but finally a set of 22 tags where chosen – 13 of which still remain in (X)HTML today. In the truest sense, HTML 1.0 never existed. It is a term now used to describe the original set of technical draft of this technology.

The Standards Menace

The largest buzzwords of today’s web development industry wasn’t introduced until around 1995when the specifications for HTML 2.0 were released and the concept of ‘standards-based‘ programming also entered the arena. Until this time HTML, like all other new and un-adopted languages consisted more of documents outlining technical specifications and the implementations were rough. HTML had an upwards battle to face and at this point no one could envision that this battle was actually going to turn out to be a war.
In 1996 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) entered the playing field and from that point on has maintained the documentation of standards for use by compliant web browsers.

Attack of the Browsers

With the benefit of foresight this war could have been prevented. Between 1996 and 2000 we saw what I would call the ‘standards war’ in which the three main players W3C, Microsoft and Netscape all played a dangerous game, each with different weapons and different agendas. W3C was interested in using HTML to define only logical structure leaving the arenas of visual effects and styles to other technologies. The problem was the two main players in the web browser game, Microsoft and Netscape, had other ideas – and who had the real power? W3C had no authority to have a say over how a web browser should implement a tag and could only really provide debate into the benefits of standards. Netscape, the largest player at this stage, wanted to use HTML to define visual effects as well introducing a wide range of Netscape-specific tags used to style web pages. Microsoft soon followed implementing many of the tags Netscape introduced and a few of their own.

Revenge of the Browsers

W3C was powerless throughout this time but rather than giving into the enemy they stood their ground and eventually came out triumphant. As we can see from today, HTML is now used to define only logical structure – all visual effects and styles are defined by Javascript and Cascading Style Sheets.

A New Hope

In 2000 XHTML 1.0 was introduced and the browser players began to take more notice to the benefits of standards-based browsers. XHTML was based around the 1997 specifications of HTML 4.0 which previously introduced Transitional, Strict and Frameset flavours. XHTML extended this but in a strict XML environment. With the buzz of XML in the air and global debate on the benefits of using XML based formats for data transfer the standards war began to come to an end.
At this point we see the death of Netscape – once the unopposed champion of web browsers, Microsoft’s dominance in the operating systems industry gave them the edge needed to topple this empire.

The Empire Strikes Back

Then entered Internet Explorer 6.0. If you are in the web industry then this browser needs no welcome. The last remnants of a time when Microsoft thought they had the right to define the industry – Internet Explorer’s poorly and wrongly implemented box model has plagued the web industry for years and will continue to do so for years to come.
Coming up from the death of Netscape though was the Mozilla project – an open source ‘rebel’ which was clearly interested in implementing standards put down by the W3C. The Mozilla project never took off in the mainstream but paved the way for its successor Mozilla Firefox – a true competitor to the now triumphant emperor of web browsers Internet Explorer.
This is the era we are in. For a while we were left at the mercy of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer but the rebellion began and slowly more and more members grew to join Firefox such as Opera, Chrome, Safari – all with one vision, to provide browsers that correctly implement W3C standards to provide all browsers with a standards-based browsing experience. While the standards war is gone the browser war has just began…

Return of the Standards

W3C won the standards war. We now have standards-based browsers with Internet Explorer 8’s release and a wealth of competitors. (X)HTML, over a decade after its original inception does what it was designed to do – provide logical structure to web pages elements. Style and visual effects are handled externally. What does the future hold? On the table are now the drafts of (X)HTML 5.0 – but that is a whole other story.

The future?

As we go forward though I wonder whether XML is the right format for defining logical structure of web pages. We are moving into a time where, as a developer, I know a lot of my pages structure is dynamically generated from Javascript. In some ways I feel that (X)HTML isn’t designed to understand this logic and is more of a survivor than a reigning champion from the days that tags were tags and the web browser was the emperor.

Creative Commons License(X)HTML Wars (The History of HTML) by Marc Loney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.

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