Tim Berners-Lee and the War On XML

Friday, 3 Nov 2006 [Thursday, 9 Nov 2006]

Tim Berners-Lee:

Some things are clearer with hindsight of several years. It is necessary to evolve HTML incrementally. The attempt to get the world to switch to XML, including quotes around attribute values and slashes in empty tags and namespaces all at once didn’t work. The large HTML-generating public did not move, largely because the browsers didn’t complain.

From following the discussion of Sir Tim’s announcement about a new HTML working group around the weblogs, I appear to be the only one to whom this bit made no sense at all.

Switching to XML is not the issue. The fact that the public didn’t move is not because XML is too big a break. The public, in fact, has often wanted to move more than they should. That they didn’t is because the majority browser engine doesn’t support XHTML at all. And is it any surprise that it doesn’t? There has been no urgency to implement such support. XHTML 2.0 does not yet exist (and in any case constitutes a complete abandonment of the 1.x track), whereas XHTML 1.x itself is just HTML 4.01 with a different syntactical outfit. Switching to XML, then, currently means giving up users in exchange for very little benefit. As a result, no one does it.

What should have been incremental is not the evolution of the syntax; it is the evolution of the vocabulary. Were switching to XML a requirement for reaping compelling benefits, the public would indubitably have moved. So would the majority browser engine.

Update: Phil Wilson, in response:

So if the majority browser engine did support XML, this presumably brings us to the question of what would those compelling benefits to the public be?

I guess I didn’t make myself clear enough. My point is not that XML itself would bring compelling benefits. My point is: had there been an XHTML 1.5 with compelling new features, then the necessity of switching to XML wouldn’t have been a barrier to its adoption. XML is not the problem. The fact that there never was an XHTML 1.5 is the problem. XHTML 1.1 did not fail to get traction because it necessitates switching to XML; it failed because in absence of anything new in it that users would want, there never was any urgency for the majority browser to support it.