A history of HTML

Posted by on Dec 17, 2011 in blog, copywriting | No Comments

HTML was invented by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee with a support team at CERN. He is currently the Director of the W3C, the group that sets technical standards for the Web and vets and approves changes to HTML versions.

HTML or HyperText Markup Language is a subset of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) which is a technological specification describing the markup languages which are used in any form of electronic document handling, publishing or exchange. HTML markup is written using HTML elements, which contain paired tags and object identifiers. It forms the building blocks upon which all web pages are created.

The first version of HTML (HTML1) was first formally published on June 1993 and has seen many changes since its first release – it is a constantly evolving and many new versions with a constantly expanding syntax have since been released.

In its earlier forms, nothing was standardised about HTML, and once browser companies gained popularity and the ‘browser wars’ began, the companies began writing proprietary HTML elements that would only work with their browsers (e.g. Some examples of these are the <marquee>…</marquee> tags (scrolling text) which originally only worked with Internet Explorer).

This led to the code becoming very unwieldy and cross-browser incompatibility was almost guaranteed, making early web design very difficult. The W3C, founded in 1994 began working on HTML guidelines and a comprehensive reference for web authors.  HTML 2.0 was released in 1995 – it contained all the original specifications, but included many new elements and functions and became the standard for website development in the mid-90’s. While many core HTML features were defined in this version, standardisation was still a problem.

Browser-specific tags persisted until HTML version 3.2 was released by W3C, which was the first official attempt at standardising the syntax. It did not include extensions tags which had been created by the browser companies and it became the official standard in 1997 – it is still supported almost fully by all browsers today, although a lot of the code is considered deprecated.

HTML 4.0 was released in 1998 and included many new features relating especially to the styling and appearance of websites, with old tags trimmed and offering support  to cascading stylesheets*, HTML’s new presentational language. It also offered 3 versions:    Strict, in which deprecated elements are forbidden, Transitional, in which deprecated elements are allowed and Frameset, in which mostly only frame related elements are allowed. Minor corrections to the documentation saw the release of HTML 4.01 in 1999.

*Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) were created with a purpose of drawing a distinct line between the content of the document (written in a markup language) and the presentation of the document. Styles are defined and stored outside of the HTML documents on separate style sheets which hyperlink to the relevant pages. Cross-site styles can thus be easily created and changed without the use of tag elements. While the concept for a separate styling document was mooted as early as 1993, CSS1 was only released in 1996, and it wasn’t until 2000 that the first full browser support for CSS1 existed (Internet Explorer 5.0).

In 2000, W3C put forward XHTML 1.0 as a recommendation, and it now stands as a joint standard with HTML 4.01.

XHTML was a new form of markup which incorporated all the syntax of HTML 4.01, but the markup rules of XML (eXtensible Markup Language – another subset of SGML), forcing stricter rules on web authors to ensure proper markup in order for the code to work properly. It placed emphasis on logical sequencing, valid and efficient coding and the use of CSS to control the all visual styling and layout on websites.

W3C pushed forward with the development of XHTML version 2. At the same time a separate group of web technology fans, browser programmers and specification writers calling themselves the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) saw that the developments in XHTML 2.0 weren’t going anywhere new and started developing a new spec outside of the W3C protocol called HTML 5.0. W3C took this on board in favour of XHTML 2.0 and a working draft of HTML 5.0 was published in 2008.

HTML 5 shows a move toward integration of media elements into the syntax with elements like <video>, <audio>, and <canvas>. These features optimised to handle multimedia and graphical content on the web without having to resort to plugins and APIs. It features many new elements and has also eliminated many elements from older versions of HTML. There is currently some browser support for HTML 5, most notably from Google’s Chrome browser. It has been accepted and sanctioned now by organisations such as Youtube, Apple and Microsoft, and is expected to be fully implemented and supported by 2014.