Yesterday the WhatWG announced a set of new standards defining their standardization process. The WhatWG has operated since 2004 when Apple, Mozilla and Opera loosely combined efforts to define a common specification to create web standards, known as the WhatWG.
I think it is fair to say that most web developers have never heard of the WhatWG and many not know of the W3C, but these are the standardization bodies that craft the specifications browser vendors use to add feature support. We as developers can then code to these specifications and have a fairly high confidence the browser vendors have given us a platform that properly implements support.
WhatWG and W3C are not the only standards bodies web developers rely. ECMA, IETF, ISO, Unicode Consortium and IANA are just some of the standardization organizations (SDO) that govern how things work on the Internet. If you want to know how something works you need to read the specifications these groups publish. It can be a bit dry, I know I have read many of the web specifications.
The main problem with the WhatWG is the lack of clear governance. This has led many to not participate and others to simply not trust their living standards.
The group formed back in 2004 because the W3C is a slow moving body. And to be fair, the W3C moves slower than a snail at times. Since the web moves at breakneck speed this can cause issues. In a way it stifles innovation because browser vendors want to ship great new features, but at the same time they don't want to break the Internet.
The most notable absence from the WhatWG crowd has been Microsoft. But these new changes mean they can openly participate. Chris Wilson, who now works on the Google Chrome team was invited to join back in 2004 to represent Microsoft. He declined, citing lack of IPR. That seems to have changed with yesterday's announcement.
The WhatWG posted an announcement on their blog yesterday highlihgting how the big four browser vendors have sort of worked things out.
"The organizations behind the four major integrated browser engines — Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla — have developed an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Policy and governance structure for the WHATWG. This enables more people to collaborate on Living Standards."
The IPR and governance were the two big sticking points keeping these companies from working together through the WhatWG.
So how does the W3C feel about this? Evidently they are pretty happy to have a peer with 'equal' governance. They made a similar announcement yesterday and broke out the WhatWG policy changes in 6 bullet points:
- A Royalty-Free patent policy aligned with the W3C Patent Policy
- The notion of having a Review Draft (which the WHATWG is using for their patent commitments)
- The notion that features only go into the Living Standards if they have multiple implementation commitments and tests
- Continued partnership between W3C and WHATWG on testing
- Permissive specification licensing with attribution (CC-BY)
- A code of conduct
This does not mean the WhatWG is not superior to the W3C or visa versa. TO be honest, as this decade has progressed the two specifications are almost identical. Granted these might be some time saving copy and pasting going on, but as far as specifications they are very close.
What I think this means is the one with the easier to read documentation will be the one more developers will read. But I think specifications will reach recommended status sooner. This happens anytime there is free market competition, which this clearly is, at least to me.
What I hope does not happen is browser vendors spreading their time too thinly when it comes to hashing out specifications. I know the W3C has formal get to gethers around the globe to talk face to face about specifications. The WhatWG seems to rely heavily on an e-mail list and GitHub repositories. So maybe this will be a more formal merging of the two as informal discussions can happen online ahead of the formal meetings where specifcations can reach finality.
The good news is anyone can participate in the WhatWG. I think I have been 'participating' by monitoring and occasionally chiming in on the Service Worker repository the past year or so. But to be a more formal participant you will need to sign up and sign a document or two to agree to adhere to the groups policies.
Either way this is a good thing for web developers. Just as I see the friendly competition between Edge, Chrome and FireFox, I hope to see friendly competition between the W3C and WhatWG. But more important, I want to see the web continue to get better.