HTML no longer fit for purpose - an alternative?

Hypermedia Browser / EditorHTML has come a long way since its first incarnation by its author Sir Tim Berners-Lee back in 1990. The first generation coding had an elegance and simplicity. But its reworking to meet the demand of publishers now means that it’s not fulfilling the needs of the majority of its users. Perhaps returning to an idea that the inventor first introduced - an editor / browser and preventing direct access to coding would be a more satisfactory way forward.

The early years
In the early days there were very few people using the Internet. Business was slow to  recognise the importance of this communication channel. There were fewer browsers and the coding did not have to achieve nearly so much as it does today.

Berners-Lee once recalled that, right from the start, and even though there was no need, people liked using the code. ‘If you use the original World Wide Web program [‘Hypermedia Browser / Editor’ see inset picture, or click for a larger image ], you never see a URL or have to deal with HTML. That was a surprise to me - that people were prepared to painstakingly write HTML.’

A handful of lines of coding created a web page and made the transmission of data in a new and exciting way. Electronic publication became possible to anyone who learned the basics.

As a former programmer I know the satisfaction that it gives to get your hands on the raw code and write and edit the code directly. But programming has moved on, and we no longer need to get our hands dirty. The very fact that people did enjoy coding was when the rot started setting in.

The growth of the monster
It was not long before programmers were using tables to more precisely position material on the screen. But due to compatibility issues between browsers this could cause unwelcome screen corruption. This still happens today. HTML was soon merged with other web technologies to extend its functionality. There has been a greater demand to improve the layout of web pages, address accessibility issues, interact with mobile devices, integrate online shopping and offer more sophisticated data management.

Long gone are the days when programmers used to boast of hand-coding all their web pages. Despite the innovation of ‘WYSIWYG’ drag-and-drop web development applications, experienced web programmers have increasingly had to be called in.

Just like the progress of car engineering, even savvy programmers are now finding that fiddling with the mechanics is becoming time-consuming and impractical.

So what’s wrong with HTML?

  • the majority of web content is now being written and published by non techies who have no interest or knowledge of HTML - they demand simplicity but also a greater freedom and ease to control web elements - and most are obliged to use a content management system
  • web pages have become bloated with coding and editing the coding leads to bugs being introduced
  • storing the code in ASCII format is a waste of storage space
  • having to interpret the ASCII coding slows down browsers when displaying web pages
  • programmers dealing with the background software engineering now have to be familiar with multiple coding languages starting with HTML, CSS3 and JavaScript, plus many more - wouldn’t it be great if most of this coding became redundant?

Return to Tim Berners-Lee’s design concept
The biggest issue here is why do we need access to the coding at all?

After all we are used to saving our office work and not having, or even wanting, access to the coding in the files we create. Microsoft Word, Acrobat pdf, Excel, InDesign are all examples of this. We can position material on the screen, save our file, and later reopen it, view our handiwork and freely change it.

My proposal is to return to Berners-Lee’s concept that he introduced with his ‘Hypermedia Browser / Editor’. Allow the user to simply create web pages with an easy-to-use web page editor. This will be same software that you will use to view the Internet. The principal difference being that you will no longer be allowed to edit the web page coding directly.

The software would also have ‘non editing and advanced user’ settings to enable programmers to use the same system and those that just want to view the web to lose the editing functions.

Given a clean sheet, what would Apple do?
I sometimes wonder what Apple, given a free run, might come up with to replace HTML. Looking at its iWeb, the website development package, perhaps we might be able to make a reasonable guess. We would expect a simple-to-use drag and drop, WYSIWYG approach with an inspector dialogue box controlling styling issues. Microsoft now uses a similar approach in its Office suite.

It would be quite feasible using a ‘locked file approach’ to allow all the versatility to be handled by dialogue boxes for each screen object - picture, text, video, audio or whatever. You would be able to freely copy objects you have created from one page to another. Web page templates with access libraries of others would speed web development.

Modular approach
Such a tamper-proof programming system will produce ‘bullet-proof’ coding. So ideally we shouldn’t allow the introduction of any additional plug-in coding. It would mean that with little training content creators could easily build powerful websites at minimal cost.

It would be possible to envisage a more flexible system that would allow extra coding to be appended to the object dialogue boxes for such things as database management. This flexibility would hopefully keep the programmers happy.

By emulating how open source systems work, it would be possible to introduce an interchangeable modular approach. So you might offer standard modules to handle blogging, survey creation, form design and provide online store management features. You would also have an option to switch to other modules of your own choosing.

Berners-Lee has been on record as saying that he would not want to see any companies monopolising or making proprietary inroads into the Internet. But the endless committees debating standards for years on end, in a technological world moving so fast, perhaps the time has come for a more commercial, intensive and radical approach.

While HTML needs a fresh start whatever replaces it must still allow us to view web pages that have gone before.

Why it will never happen
But this is all pie in the sky, and it will never happen. Why?

  • There are too many vested interests and powerful voices that will hinder progress.
  • Whole companies have been built on the back of HTML complexity. CMS systems and web development software companies would be unhappy that the whole coding system would be built on a well conceived free editor.
  • There would be resistance from programmers. If you make web page creation too easy then they will fear redundancy.
  • Some people might say they never access the coding anyway and that Adobe Dreamweaver or other CMS and web page creation systems are good enough for them.
  • Some will say that such a system would be a straight-jacket for future progress and run counter to the cooperative ethos of the Internet. But with government intrusion, that’s no longer the case anyway. My answer would be regular updates to the system.
  • If this was a commercial project, such a bold system could be built in a couple of years. But try and create this openly with industry-input and debate, it would just never happen - the project is too large and complex with too much to agree. Just consider the seven year development period for HTML5 and it is still not fully accepted.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recognised the difficulty of getting agreement for new standards, ‘It’s amazing that the globe has been able to work together to accomplish what we already have.’

But we can dream!

An article by Prof Alan Woodward of the Department of Computing, University of Surrey ‘The internet is broken - we need to start over' takes the argument a stage further considering security issues.


  1. writingfortheweb posted this