New version of HTML expected by fourth quarter

The specification for a major new version of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is expected by the fourth quarter, according to officials at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The W3C, which groups together academics and more than 100 vendors in the interests of sorting out Web standards, plans to issue a new specification for HTML that goes beyond the interim, 3.2 version announced last week at the Fifth International World Wide Web Conference here.

The next, as-yet unnamed version will add features including style sheets and advanced image manipulation, according to W3C officials. These will be added to the features in the recently finalised HTML 3.2, which include tables, and the ability to incorporate Java applets and text flow around images, according to W3C officials.

"We expect the next version of HTML to come out within three or four months," says Dave Raggett, a Hewlett-Packard developer based in the UK who chairs the HTML workgroup charged with co-ordinating new versions.

Style sheets provide a standard set of commands, or tags, to dress up the presentation aspects of a page -- such as fonts, coloured text and headline sizes, according to W3C officials.

This will theoretically help make all Web pages accessible by all browsers, preserving software interoperability on the Web.

Netscape Communications officials said last week at the World Wide Web Conference that the company would support style sheets in Navigator 4.0, with beta testing on the product expected to start during the next three or four months. Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, due out in the third quarter, will also incorporate style sheets, according to company officials.

The next version of HTML also will offer an object tag that will allow users to click on an object incorporated into a Web page to launch images, animation, and videos, say officials.

Other new features being considered include the ability to integrate mathematical formulae as text, rather than static images, permitting formulae to be calculated.

Some visitors to the Web conference last week were puzzled by the fact that the W3C issued a 3.2 specification, jumping from the previous 2.0 version and skipping a 3.0 specification. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the 3.2 specification does not include many of the features that most developers thought would be part of a 3.0 version.

"I realise that the situation could appear confusing. This comes from the fact that there never was a consensus around HTML 3.0.," says Vincent Quint, director of research at INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique), which hosts the European arm of W3C, working with the W3C US branch housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While the W3C proposed HTML 3.0 specifications, commercial vendors like Microsoft and Netscape Communication -- though they belong to the W3C -- raced ahead with proprietary extensions to HTML, Quint says.

"Extensions launched by companies such as Netscape, which is also a member of the consortium, became de facto standards. These extensions brought some new features compared to 2.0 and incorporated some of the proposals for HTML 3.0, but not all of them. There was, then, a division between the HTML 3.0 proposal by the consortium and the extensions adopted by the market," Quint says.

Caught in the middle of the crossfire between companies such as Microsoft and Netscape, the W3C tried to come up with a standard set of features and commands to go into a new HTML specification that all vendors would support, say officials. Since it appeared so difficult to come up with a compromise on a wide-ranging new HTML 3.0 specification, the W3C decided to proceed more slowly.

"The W3C opted for a more evolutionary progression that, let's be clear, is also a compromise of a political nature," says Quint. "HTML 3.0 has then been abandoned in favor of a version 3.2, compatible with version 2.0 and less formidable than HTML 3.0. It could also have been called HTML 2.1 ..."

However confusing the naming process has been, it seems to have worked in terms of getting vendors to compromise on a basic interoperable standard.

"You need to compromise to get buy-in from the vendors ... and we did get buy-in," says Hakon Lie, an INRIA developer heading up the style sheets effort.

The agreement from vendors was needed, not only for vendor support, but to win backing from the growing body of users of Web technology.

"The W3C is going to be fighting a losing battle unless there is something to be gained for people writing to a standard," says Mitch Golden, director of technology at Neographic, a New York-based company that designs Web pages for companies.

If the major vendors agree on a standard set of HTML commands, users worldwide will gain from writing to that standard as a means of allowing their Web pages to interoperate with a wide variety of software, note some users.

"Our main interest is in interoperability and obviously the World Wide Web Consortium has established itself as a way to prevent a dangerous divergence of different products," says Steve Rudkin, who leads a team working on distributed systems at British Telecom.

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