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XHTML 2 or HTML 5 Which one is for you?

Overview of XHTML 2.0

XHTML 2.0 is based solely on XML, forgoing the SGML heritage and syntax peculiarities present in current web markup. XHTML 2.0 is supposed to be a “general-purpose language,” with a minimal default feature set that is easy to extend using CSS and other technologies (XForms, XML Events, etc). It’s a modular approach that allows the XHTML2 group to focus on generic document markup, while others develop mechanisms for presentation, interactivity, document construction, etc.

Priority one for the XHTML2 working group is to further separate document content and structure from document presentation. Other goals include increased usability and accessibility, improved internationalization, more device independence, less scripting, and better integration with the Semantic Web. The group has been less concerned with backward compatibility than their predecessors (and the HTML working group), which has led them to drop some of the syntactic baggage present in earlier incarnations of HTML. The result is a cleaner, more concise language that corrects many of Web markup’s past indiscretions.

Overview of HTML 5

While XHTML 2.0 aims to be revolutionary, the HTML working group has taken a more pragmatic approach and designed HTML 5 as an evolutionary technology. That is to say, HTML 5 is an incremental step forward that remains mostly compatible with the current HTML 4/XHTML 1 standards. However, HTML 5 offers a host of changes and extensions to HTML 4/XHTML 1 that address many of the faults in these earlier specifications.

HTML 5 is about moving HTML away from document markup, and turning it into a language for web applications. To that end, much of the specification focuses on creating a more robust, feature-ful client side environment for web application development by providing a variety of APIs. Among other things, the spec stipulates that complying implementations must provide client-side persistent storage (both key/value and SQL storage engines), audio and video playback APIs, 2D drawing through the canvas element, cross-document messaging, server-sent events, and a networking API.

The HTML 5 specification maintains an SGML-like syntax that is compatible with the current HTML specifications (though some of the more esoteric features of SGML are no longer supported). Also included in the specification is a second “XML Serialization” which allows developers to serve valid XML documents as well. Again, by maintaining an SGML-like serialization the HTML 5 working group has struck a balance between pragmatism and progress. Developers can choose to markup content using either the HTML serialization (which looks more like HTML 4.x) or the XML serialization (which looks more like XHTML 1.x).

Similar Features

It shouldn’t be too surprising that both working groups are proposing a number of similar features. These features address familiar pain points for web developers, and should be welcome additions to the next generation of markup languages.

Removal of Presentational Elements

A number of elements have been removed from both XHTML 2.0 and HTML 5 because they are considered purely presentational. The consensus is that presentation should be handled using style sheets.

HTML 5 and XHTML 2.0 documents cannot contain these elements: basefont, big, font, s, strike, tt, and u. XHTML 2.0 also removes the small, b, i, and hr elements, while HTML 5 redefines them with non-presentational meanings. In XHTML 2.0, the hr element has been replaced with separator in an attempt to reduce confusion (since the hr element, which stands for horizontal rule, is not necessarily either of those things).

Navigation Lists

Navigation lists have been introduced in both XHTML 2.0 and HTML 5. In XHTML 2.0, navigation is marked up using the new nl element. Navigation lists must start with a child label element that defines the list title. Following the title, one or more li elements are used to markup links. Also new in XHTML 2.0 is the ability to create a hyperlink from any element using the href attribute. Combining these features produces simple, lightweight navigation markup:

In HTML 5, the new nav element has been introduced for this purpose. Unfortunately, nav is not a list element, so it cannot contain child li elements to logically organize links (perhaps a new idiom will develop). And since anchor tags are still required to create hyperlinks in HTML 5, navigation markup is not quite as elegant:

Enhanced Forms

Both specifications have new features to create more robust, consistent forms with less scripting. In XHTML 2.0, standard HTML forms are dropped completely in favor of the more comprehensive XForms standard. The XHTML2 working group does not control this standard, but references it from the XHTML 2.0 specification. To facilitate reuse, XForms separates the data being collected from the markup of the controls. It’s a robust and powerful language, but a full description is way beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, there will be a bit of a learning curve for web developers trying to get up to speed with this technology.

HTML 5 retains the familiar HTML forms, but adds several new data types to simplify development and improve usability. In HTML 5, several new types of input elements have been introduced for email addresses, URLs, dates and times, and numeric data. This will allow user agents to provide more sophisticated user interfaces (e.g., calendar date pickers), integrate with other applications (e.g., pulling addresses from Outlook or Address Book), and validate user input before posting data to the server (less client-side javascript validation).

Semantic Markup

Both working groups have embraced the coming Semantic Web by allowing developers to embed richer metadata in their documents. As with forms, the XHTML2 working group has embraced a more sophisticated technology, while the HTML working group has kept things simple.

In XHTML 2.0, metadata can be embedded by using several new global attributes from the Metainformation Attributes Module. In particular, the new global role attribute is intended to describe the meaning of a given element in the context of the document. The technical term is Embedding Structured Data in Web Pages. Again, the group leverages an existing standard by referencing RDF. The technology is extremely powerful, but it’s also complicated.

The HTML working group has taken an approach that feels more like microformats by overloading the class attribute with a predefined set of reserved classes to represent various types of data. The specification currently lists seven reserved classes: copyright, error, example, issue, note, search, and warning. While overloading the class attribute like this might be confusing, it’s unlikely that user agents will render elements with these classes differently. And the class names are specific enough that there’s little worry: if an element has its class set to copyright, it’s probably a copyright whether the developer knew about the reserved classes or not.

Only in HTML 5

There are several new features that the HTML 5 specification describes that have no counterparts in XHTML 2.0.

Web Application APIs

HTML 5 introduces several APIs that will drastically improve the client-side web development environment. These APIs are what set HTML 5 apart as a proposal for a technology stack for Web Applications, rather than simply a markup language for documents. It should be noted that the details of these APIs are being worked out by the Web API working group, so they may be adopted with or without the rest of HTML 5. The new APIs, and corresponding elements are:

  • A 2D drawing API using the canvas element.
  • An audio and video playback API, supporting the ability to offer multiple formats to user agents, which can be used with the new video and audio elements.
  • Persistent storage on the client-side with support for both key/value and SQL databases.
  • An offline web application API (similar to Google Gears).
  • An API that allows Web Applications to register themselves for certain protocols or MIME types.
  • An editing API that can be used in combination with the global contenteditable attribute.
  • A drag & drop API that can be used with the draggable attribute.
  • A network API allowing Web applications to communicate using TCP.
  • An API that exposes the browser history, allowing applications to add to it so they don’t break the back button.
  • A cross-document messaging API.
  • Server-sent events in combination with the new event-source element.

New Elements

Several new elements are being introduced by HTML 5 that aren’t available in XHTML 2.0:

  • figure represents an image or graphic with a caption. A nested legend represents the caption, while a normal img element is used for the image.
  • m represents text that has been marked in some way. It could be used to highly search terms in resulting documents, for example.
  • time represents dates and time.
  • meter represents a measurement.
  • datagrid represents an interactive tree list or tabular data.
  • command represents a command that the user can invoke.
  • event-source is used to “catch” server sent events.
  • output represents some type of output, such as from a calculation done through scripting.
  • progress represents a completion of a task, such as downloading or when performing a series of expensive operations.

In addition, several new elements will help semantically markup the parts of a document. They’re fairly self explanatory: section, article, header, footer, and aside. And a new dialog element is designed to represent conversations using child dt elements for the speaker’s name and dd elements for the text.

Track Users by Pinging URIs

The new ping attribute can be used on the a and area elements to do user tracking. Rather than using redirects, or relying on javascript, the ping attribute allows you to specify a space separated list of URIs that should be pinged when the hyperlink is followed.

Only in XHTML 2.0

Also notable are the following new features that are available only in XHTML 2.0.

Any Element can be a Hyperlink

In XHTML 2.0, any element can be the source of a hyperlink — the href attribute can appear on any element. With this change the a element is no longer necessary, but it is retained.

Any Element can be an Image (or other resource)

In XHTML 2.0, the img element has been dropped. No worries, though — any element can now be an image. The idea is that all images have a “long description” that is equivalent to the image itself. By placing a src attribute on any element, you’re telling the user agent to load that resource in place of the element. If, for whatever reason, the resource is unavailable, the element is used instead. This allows developers to provide multiple equivalent resources using different file formats and representations by nesting elements within one another.

Lines Replace Line Breaks

The venerable br element, used to insert line breaks, has also been dropped from XHTML 2.0. The new l element is being introduced to replace it. l represents a line of text, and behaves like a span followed by a br in today’s markup.

New Heading Construct

The new h and section elements have been introduced to replace the numbered h1 through h6 elements. The goal is to accurately represent the hierarchical structure of a document. The current numbered headings are linear, not nested. By nesting section and h elements within parent sections the document structure is made explicit.

New Elements

The XHTML2 working group has focused on creating a more generic, simplified language. To that end, they’ve refrained from adding numerous specialized elements to represent different types of content. They argue that the new role attribute provides a mechanism for including rich metadata, making specialized elements unnecessary. That said, a couple new elements were included:

  • blockcode represents computer code.
  • di represents a group of related terms and definitions in a dl (definition list). This is useful for words with multiple definitions, or multiple spellings.
  • handler represents a scripted event handler, with a type attribute specifying the handler language. If the user agent doesn’t understand the language, the handler’s children are processed (otherwise they’re ignored). Handlers may be nested to provide multiple implementations in various languages.


Both proposals look promising, with lots of new features that address common web development problems. But neither specification is an official recommendation, and it’s likely to stay that way for some time.

Despite its late start, the HTML 5 working group seems to have more industry support, and is further along in the recommendation process. Their goal is to have a complete spec, with multiple interoperable implementations, by late 2010 (as I said before, though, the W3C has already missed some milestones in the approval process). With industry support from most of the major browser vendors (the only notable exception being Microsoft) it’s likely that this specification will be implemented quickly and consistently once it’s reached a stable state.

What everyone wants to avoid is another standards war. Fortunately, since both languages support XML namespaces (or, in the case of the HTML serialization of HTML 5, DOCTYPE switching) it’s unlikely that we’ll see the sort of browser dependent behavior we did in the 1990s. Standards wars aside, the future looks bright for web development. These new markup features and APIs will provide a rich environment for web development that should narrow the gap between Web and Desktop applications.

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