HTML 4.01 in Netscape and Explorer: Standards and Implementations | WebReference

HTML 4.01 in Netscape and Explorer: Standards and Implementations

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Standards and Implementations
A short history

Standards and Specifications

The first thing to understand is that technically there is no standard for HTML. What this means is that there is no standardization body (i.e., the ISO), that publishes a definition of what the standards are in the language. This is demonstrated by the fact that Microsoft continues to implement its own HTML elements in its Internet Explorer browser, in spite of the fact that many are not compatible with other browsers (see also Browser Wars v.2004: Part 1). What does exist is the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), which publishes proposed recommendations of HTML specifications, among other things.

The W3C is an organization with paying members that contribute to the creation of recommendations. What's more, the W3C operates open mailing lists where people can contribute to the discussion and development of new specifications. All in all, the W3C is a very open organization. According to their Web site: "The World Wide Web Consortium both develops and promotes standard technologies for the Web."

While there is "technically" no standard for HTML, the recommendations by the W3C are treated as such. These are the standards which Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and others consult when designing and upgrading their Web browsers. These are also the same standards by which Web pages are validated. It's a little too late in the game to develop another organization for standardizing HTML or other Web technologies. For our purposes, we will consider the recommendations by the W3C as standards.

The Reality

That said, it is surprising how both Navigator and Explorer differ so much in their implementations, between each other and with any HTML specification. This problem was created through a long history of competition and marketing ploys by both companies. (For a history of the two companies, see Browser Wars v.2004: Part 1).

When Netscape started developing Navigator, they decided to implement new features and came up with their own. Some were good, some were bad. As long as Navigator was the dominant browser, and was available for a wide variety of platforms, this wasn't a big problem. Back then the recommendations issued by the W3C where given little heed. But when Microsoft came along and created Internet Explorer, things changed.

At first Explorer looked a lot like Navigator, and with good reason; Microsoft wanted people to find it easy to switch. Explorer also introduced various new features, and like the ones in Navigator, some were a success, and some failed. As the browsers grew alongside each other, they became huge applications involving various different protocols and languages. Eventually the code for Netscape became open to the public, using the Mozilla source code. The Mozilla open source organization is dedicated to following W3C standards and not inventing its own. Its main browser at the time of this revision (November 2004) is Firefox.

W3C Specifications

As we've mentioned earlier, the latest HTML specification produced by the W3C is version 4.01. This is the fifth such specification; the first one was HTML 2.0, which was a simple enough language that attempted to gather the various implementations and concatenate them into a concrete specification. Whatever dark and formless chaos existed earlier is collectively called HTML 1.0, although there never was such a specification.

While Netscape was thinking up new features for HTML, the W3C was working on its own enhancements. After a while it became obvious that what the W3C was planning and what Netscape was implementing were just too different to reconcile, so the W3C scrapped whatever it was working on and decided to start with a clean slate. Any references you might see to HTML 3.0 or HTML+ refer to the work the W3C was doing at that time, which is no longer maintained and mostly unimplemented.

Then came HTML 3.2, which aimed to gather all the most popular features Netscape had introduced into a concrete specification.

HTML 4.0 was released shortly after 3.2, implementing the use of Cascading Style Sheets, as well as other attributes designed for accessibility and multiple language support.

HTML 4.01 is the latest HTML specification. It provides minor upgrades to correct some of the errors in 4.0..

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Created: Mar. 12, 1998
Revised: November 15, 2004