XHTML 2, we hardly knew ya

I don’t teach much HTML anymore. But, as background to my journalism instruction, I’ve been talking up the benefits of XHTML to my students for a couple of years now.

It brought rigour to HTML, encouraging cleaner markup, broader standards and generally a loftier vision for structuring content on the web. The journalism students who cared about such things saw the logic and clarity it brought to the medium through its tight integration with XML, the “super language” of the Internet.

XHTML 2 promised even more. As the World Wide Web Consortium states, the markup standard would have offered a clean and robust foundation for creating content on future devices. Specifically, it would have banished presentation elements entirely to CSS, and offered greater accessibility and internationalization.

Alas, the W3C ceased work on XHTML 2 last week. In fact, it was all but dead months ago.

Developers had grown weary of the W3C’s focus on standards at the expense of new features. Most had thrown their support behind HTML 5 — an extension of HTML 4.01, which was last updated in 1999.

Bruce Lawson, an HTML 5 advocate, told CNET: “XHTML 2 was a beautiful specification of philosophical purity that had absolutely no resemblance to the real world.” Developers — the folks who actually build the web — wanted more tools for interactive content.

A major flaw was that XHTML 2 wasn’t backwards compatible. XHTML 1 code would have to rewritten it to be valid in the new standard. Browsers themselves would have to be substantially expanded.

As Scott Gilbertson points out, every major browser update this year included at least some elements of HTML 5, but none touched XHTML 2.0:

Where HTML 5 has loads of new stuff for developers to use — native audio and video embeds, multi-column layout tools, offline data storage, native vector graphics — XHTML 2.0 didn’t offer anything of the sort.

Ultimately it seems the standards folks couldn’t see the trees for the forest. Their vision was simply too grand.

Oh, I know there’s an XML serialization of HTML 5. But there’s something a little sad about the death of such a well-considered plan for the future of the web.

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