New Main Element Approved, then Blocked
When I saw
main proposed as an element a few months ago (or
maincontent as alternate names), I didn’t think the process to fold it into the HTML specification would move very quickly.
Much to my surprise on the W3C HTML Working Group mailing list the
main element not only got a draft HTML5 extension specification quickly, it also worked its way through the process to become approved as a First Public Working Draft on Tuesday (yesterday) the 27th of November.
And so the process appears to be working.
Except the W3C is just one of the standards bodies working on HTML5. There is also WHATWG, the body that years ago picked up the then-discarded HTML specification from W3C and started to carry it forward to HTML5. Now the two groups work together, with the W3C working on versioned specifications with WHATWG working on the ever-evolving standard.
Over on the WHATWG mailing list,
main doesn’t seem to be getting much traction from the editor, which leaves it in a bit of limbo. WHATWG does, however, try to reflect in its specification approach that which is already in place in the browsers. For example, if the browser makers suddenly supported
main, then WHATWG would consider it viable.
Except WHATWG was started by, and is still made up of, people from the browser makers Apple, Mozilla and Opera. Others contribute, but its membership can heavily influence the direction browsers take.
When the author of the
main extension specification started to add support for
main to WebKit (the core of Apple Safari and Google Chrome), the WebKit bug report quickly turned into a fresh debate over the merit of the
main element — by none other than the WHATWG editor.
Mozilla team members have pre-emptively stated that they do not support
main being added to HTML5, but they did so on the WebKit mailing list. The argument against
main being added as a patch to the browsers is this:
Shopping a patch to implementors, to get something into a standard spec
by asserting de-facto status based on the patch(es) landing, is bad form.
Sadly, it seems the same circular argument is being used to block
main in the WHATWG HTML specification. By blocking its implementation in browsers, WHATWG members can claim there is no real-world support and so no need to add it to the specification (this is assuming the arguments against the use cases still stand). Then it’s a matter of pushing back at the W3C HTML Working Group to let it wither over there.
Even the author of the use cases for the
main element appears to have thrown in the towel at WHATWG.
There is still some hope, however. Both Opera and Internet Explorer representatives have not argued against it and have even offered some support:
Bear in mind, all this has happened in roughly a 48 hour window. Much more will happen, but the start of this process is certainly not as positive as I had hoped (disclosure, I voted for it on the W3C list). Even if you aren’t in favor of the
main element, this is still a telling view into the standards-making process.
Update, January 31, 2013
And there it is,
main has appeared in the WHATWG version of the HTML specification.
Update: September 10, 2015
More than three years later, the WHATWG specification still allows (and advocates for) multiple
main elements. I could speculate that they hated having to implement it, so making it diverge from the intent and W3C spec is the easiest way to sow confusion and argue for its pointlessness down the road.
Steve Faulkner filed a bug (Consider aligning WHATWG main element definition with W3C definition #100) against the WHATWG spec to have it updated to match the W3C spec.
Given the WHATWG editors’ seeming unwillingness to provide any data or evidence to back up their position, I don’t hold out a lot of hope. Case in point &8212; when a self-described screen reader user offered her feedback and an example, the WHATWG editor responded with an image with no alternative text.
Every time the WHATWG editor makes any assertion about accessibility, we all need to question it. There’s plenty of other evidence in the archives, but this one is the tops.
Sadly, it also demonstrates that he just doesn’t get it.