Not 24 hours after the W3C released the new “shield” logo of HTML5 and made T-shirts available online (allowing web developers everywhere to look like the superheroes they secretly long to be), WHATWG announced that HTML5 was being rebranded. HTML5 would now be known as… HTML.

Mass confusion resulted.

This deserves some explanation. From its inception, WHATWG has shown a stubborn persistence in sticking to its core principles, even (and perhaps especially) when those principles appear to fly in the face of common sense.

The primary – perhaps over-riding – principle of WHATWG is pragmatism: HTML5 should always reflect what browsers do and can achieve, rather than some ideal gold standard. HTML5 acid tests only go so far. Versioning of HTML means massive efforts every few years to generate a new specification, whereas the modern software development paradigm is one of small, constant, incremental upgrades delivered to users almost invisibly (for example, with Google’s Chrome browser, patches and updates are applied to the browser each time it launches: few people are aware of which version of Chrome they are actually using).

The reality is that few browsers will ever be completely “HTML 5 compatible”. WHATWG’s “benign dictator”, Ian Hickson, is a Google employee, and very much shares the company’s mindset: Google’s own work is in “constant beta”. From that standpoint, it makes sense to state that HTML5 is henceforth “version less”, and make it the new base technical layer of HTML. The HTML standard becomes a “living document”, added to over time. It should also be noted that this is merely a change within WHATWG itself: the W3C has not, as of this writing, embraced this particular move.

From a technical standpoint, the name change makes a kind of sense, although it makes referencing developments in HTML harder: there is no “HTML6”, just “HTML when they changed <aside> to <sidebar>”* However, it may also mean future issues: a specification that is never “finished” also runs the risk of never being complete.

From a marketing and branding perspective, this is an unmitigated disaster. People expect, and respect, version numbers. “HTML” is a giant, lazy, catch-all term; “HTML 5” at least has an association of freshness, difference and novelty. Because of that, I will continue to refer to the language as “HTML5” in this blog… and so, I expect, will the rest of the industry.

*one can wish, anyway