Why HTML does not matter

Ever since this whole xHTML versus HTML debate started I’ve been asking myself why is this an issue? To this day nobody has offered any plausible line of reasoning to help me make the argument for switching to any particular format.

Personally I see that the rise of xHTML is not due to its technical potential but due to its propaganda potential. The rise of web standards owes a lot to xHTML because it required developers to learn a new syntax. If there where going to overhaul the way they worked they might as well go for the potentially more advanced format. And it’s got an “x” in it, which actually carries some weight in geek country. Don’t you just love marketing?

The Web Standards Organisation back in the day was up against some horrific resistance. Not just from developers but also from designers, project managers, account managers, sales reps ad infinitum. WASP still had to get the message out on the startling benefits of structural markup, style sheets, and the importance of separating structure from presentation. The markup format wasn’t really mentioned for the simple reason that it didn’t matter that much. xHTML is potentially better than HTML but in reality it offers us no real benefits.

As web standards marched towards more and better solutions in front-end coding it quickly became clear that xHTML was good a vehicle to spike the message of a bright new world. Echoing the hype of the dot com bubble days we starting hearing things like, “It’s HTML and XML!” while they carefully omitted, “but the XML bit doesn’t really work”. If you understood what ‘separating structure from presentation’ actually meant you had already jumped on the bandwagon. You were the choir that they were preaching too and you potentially didn’t care that it had an “x” in it. It was the designers and managers that needed that extra push, so xHTML was added to the buzzword list along with XML. Just to convince those who’d listen that if they held it up to their ear they could here the sound of a cash register. Don’t you just love the hype?

So where are we now? Well, web standards still isn’t here, that’s the sad fact. It’s standing in the doorway trying to show off what a fantastic hairdo and slim waistline it has. Meanwhile the xHTML gravy train has run out of steam and can’t go much further because there’s a dead browser lying on the tracks. Its reinvigorated version is coming soon, good news, as long this version doesn’t end up loitering on the tracks instead of hopping onboard. xHTML’s symbol of a bright new day still remains as does it’s potential.

Please don’t bore me with tales of DTD’s and doctypes. They, like xHTML, still don’t do what they suggest they do. Doctypes are just flags for browsers to switch rendering mode but only when you match the exact syntax because the client doesn’t parse it because the DTD references they contain aren’t actually referred too. In the end browsers read xHTML just as if it was old school HTML, no more no less.  And this SGML malarkey better stop too. Browsers allow for erroneous code by intentionally being error tolerant and thus leaving the door wide open for xHTML to let web standards stand in it. The one advantage xHTML has over HTML is the potential to extend it over and above its HTML ability. On the other hand replacing xHTML with HTML is just replacing the newer with the older with no significant trade-offs.
What it really boils down too is personal preference. As long as you write your code to spec what flavour of HTML you use doesn’t really matter. But hey, don’t you just love the debate?

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