It's been a work in progress for years, but there are a few more years to go yet before the next version of Hypertext Markup Language is finalized.
HTML5 in the second quarter of 2014
HTML5 will become the first new revision since HTML 4.01 was released in 1999. Among the features in the next-generation Web page description language: built-in video and audio, a "canvas" element for two-dimensional graphics, new structural labels such as "article" to smooth programming, and a codified process to consistently interpret the hodgepodge styles of real-world Web pages, even when improperly coded.
That doesn't mean interested parties won't be able to employ the new technology until 2014, though. On the contrary, key phases of the coming years' development involve getting feedback from real-world use that's already well under way and ironing out wrinkles that may arise implementing the standard in Web browsers.
The WHATWG's living document
Even as the W3C proceeds methodically, though, another group involved in developing HTML is changing its philosophy to an even more fluid arrangement. The WHATWG--Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group--began work on what became HTML5 in 2004 when the W3C declared that the 1999 update to HTML4 was the final version and that the future lay with an incompatible standard called XHTML 2.0. That proved to be largely a dead end, however, and the W3C resumed HTML work in 2007 and now has phased out work on XHTML 2.0.
The WHATWG got its start as an open mailing list, but its founders and decision-makers all came from browser makers--Opera and Mozilla to start, with Apple joining later. HTML governance now essentially involves both the W3C and the WHATWG. One key figure is Ian Hickson, a former Opera and now Google employee who serves as an editor of the somewhat divergent versions of HTML maintained at both the W3C and the WHATWG.
In January, Hickson declared that at the WHATWG, HTML has now become a "living document," a specification that is constantly updated according to need. Abandoning version numbers that no longer are needed, Hickson ditched the term "HTML5" in favor of just "HTML." And he said he'd like to see the W3C follow suit.
The W3C has always revised its standards, Jacobs said. "That doesn't mean everybody wants the nightly build of a specification," he said, referring to the software development practice of building a new test version of software every night to include programmers' latest patches. "We also have stable versions of standards, because there are some communities who need those for the level of interoperability they require...We think both innovation and stability are valuable, and they are not mutually exclusive."
Another factor is intellectual-property rights--specifically, patents. Those who participate in creating the W3C's specifications agree not to sue those implementing the specification for infringement of any patents those participants own. It's a bit of legal reassurance in a technology world that has plenty of patent risks, but technically that assurance only comes with the final version of a specification.