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Summary:

The controversial decision by the World Wide Web Consortium to create a new — and potentially confusing — brand identity for HTML5 doesn’t tell us much about the future of technology, but it does expose the weaknesses that motivate the web’s ruling body.

HTML5 Logo

HTML5 LogoThere’s something about logos that makes them a magnet for protest. Whether it’s Starbucks, Gap, or some other company, new or changing logos always provide an opportunity for a bit of splenetic outrage. So perhaps the World Wide Web Consortium — the body that oversees the development of the web — should have been braced for a storm when it announced a new logo for HTML5 Tuesday.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s not particularly because of the way it looks (it doesn’t appear particularly offensive), or what it’s replacing (it is new). This time, people are angry simply because it exists.

More accurately, protesters say that it doesn’t tell the truth, because the single “HTML5” brand slaps a single, inaccurate name on top of a vast number of technologies and standards for no particular reason. It not only incorporates actual HTML5, the next generation of the language that underpins the web, but also including CSS3, JavaScript, SVG and a plethora of official APIs that can be used for web applications.

In the W3C’s FAQs, this deliberate confusion is outlined: The logo is a general-purpose visual identity for a broad set of open web technologies, including HTML5, CSS, SVG, WOFF, and others.

It’s as if the government suddenly announced that from today, all vegetables will be called potatoes, just because some vegetables are potatoes.

Jeremy Keith, a partner at UK-based web design outfit Clearleft, has so far been the point man for the anti-logo campaign. Keith, who is a friend of mine, wonders what the point is in having a bucket term that makes life more difficult for those working on the web.

What do I do when I want to give a description of a workshop, or a talk, or a book that’s actually about HTML5? If I just say “It’s about HTML5,” that will soon be as meaningful as saying “It’s about Web 2.0,” or “It’s about leveraging the synergies of disruptive transmedia paradigms.” The term HTML5 has, with the support of the W3C, been pushed into the linguistic sewer of buzzwordland.

Amid the protests, the W3C is, in fact, keenly aware of this argument. Philippe Le Hegaret, the man in charge of the organization’s HTML-related developments, told me in an interview a few months ago that the confusion was becoming widespread and said the W3C preferred the term “open web platform”.

Nowadays in the larger audience, it’s more used to mean what we call ourselves the “open web platform” — a set of specifications that are all interacting together, including HTML5, CSS3, SVG, the geolocation API. People use the term HTML5 to refer to this big platform, but we’re talking about a string of specifications that are not developing at the same speed or being rolled out at the same speed.

So why is the W3C taking this bizarre turn?

In large part, it’s media pressure; news outlets have been guilty of conflating a range of different technologies together under a buzzword banner. That leads to a sort of general consensus that if everyone else is using a term, then it must become the right term.

But it’s more than that. There are two more factors that have brought us to the point where the people who are supposed to be in charge of the web’s future have decided that deliberately confusing people is the right thing to do.

First, the HTML5 fiasco is a reflection of the W3C’s own feelings of inadequacy. It has always struggled with its image as a huge, sprawling bureaucracy that can’t make decisions. This in turn has made it very difficult for the group to successfully market technologies that it works on.

Unlike a commercial organization which might create a brand early on that encapsulates its ideas and then push a variety of products under that banner, the W3C saw how “HTML5″ was being used and realized it might have inadvertently created a buzzword — and is now trying to cram as many things into the same jar as possible.

But reactive marketing like this is rarely successful, and comes across as a sign of panic, not confidence.

Then there’s the fact this new development is also a bizarre expression of guilt. After all, the W3C spent years trying to kill off HTML and replace it with XHTML before finally admitting defeat to the browser vendors and admitting that it didn’t know best. (There’s a good outline of the battle in Mark Pilgrim’s book Dive Into HTML5, or in this article I wrote back in November.

Having tried to assassinate a system that has now captured the public imagination, a haunted W3C is now furiously backpedaling to give it as much support as possible. Looking at it this way, I almost feel sorry for the W3C and the logo itself. They’re just capricious children who are acting out. But the trouble is that newfound enthusiasm can quickly turn to overkill, and if the web’s overseers really love HTML, then the last thing they should want to do is suffocate it.

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  1. I disagree that it’s not visually offensive. Aside from all of its other problems, it looks like something that belongs on a Soviet propaganda poster from the Stalin era.

    “In the next 5 year plan, Ministry of Web Development will produce 3.2 million units color pixels and 400 thousand metric tons cascading style sheets. Industrious factory workers will accelerate production of Javascript by 8 percent.”

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    1. Of all people, Bad Horse, I wouldn’t expect you to complain about something seeming too totalitarian. Maybe you could use something like it for the new Evil League of Evil logo?

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    2. Hamranhansenhansen Thursday, January 20, 2011

      To me, it looks like it is from an 8-bit 1980’s video game. There should be a blocky knight holding that shield.

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  2. Clever marketing. Good logo. Wrong organisation?

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  3. My guess is that this is a repeat of what happened when the term “web 2.0″ was first coined. It represented a number of technologies under a single badge.

    Some of these designers would rather have no identity than one that they consider technically inaccurate. In my experience, its better to embrace something like this simply because customers will start asking for HTML 5 in their products rather than not.

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    1. The difference is, Ian, that “Web 2.0″ wasn’t already in use to describe something, it was a new term bolted on to an existing idea: HTML5 is a pre-existing term with its own meaning being suddenly given a double meaning by the body meant to protect it!

      I understand that marketing terminology is useful, but there’s a difference between going with the flow and endorsing confusion.

      I also think this “customers are asking for HTML5″ thing is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. You get what you give.

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      1. Well, the badge is out there. Everyone from Steve Jobs to Kara Swisher is calling this entire development movement HTML 5, so it leaves us with little choice eh?

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      2. Hamranhansenhansen Thursday, January 20, 2011

        Except we want customers to ask for HTML5, and they are doing so because what they have been given in the past is MSHTML/FlashPlayer that broke as soon as you used anything other than a Windows PC on the supposedly device-independent Web. So any Web developer who is on a high horse about standards should notice they are sitting on a donkey.

        And the W3C will be in the doghouse over XHTML for at least another 10 years. They have a lot to live down.

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  4. [...] que identifican una postura fuerte de marketing planteada por la gente del consorcio, y aun que no todos estén de acuerdo, personalmente creo es una muy buena [...]

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  5. Perhaps a pithy tag line would make things right. I propose “It’s got electrolytes!”

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  6. Why not Web 3.0?
    Who’s with me? Anyone?
    *crickets*
    Guys?

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  7. [...] The Truth Behind HTML5′s New Logo Fiasco There’s something about logos that makes them a magnet for protest. Whether it’s Starbucks (s sbux), Gap (s gps), [...] [...]

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  8. I actually like the brand and I think it was a smart decision. Whether it will accomplish this or not, I agree that branding HTML5 was an attempt at unifying something that has become so ambiguous and that is indeed a tall order. It doesn’t matter if it was a result of market pressure or panic – it’s a step in the right direction.

    It was a buzzword like Web 2.0 – that’s correct – but now it’s gradually becoming something more real and concrete (although admittedly this won’t happen overnight with the mere introduction of a logo). Allowing developers the ability to place a badge on their website with specific HTML5 recognition like semantics, CSS3, connectivity and so on makes the whole movement less confusing. The idea of harmoniously bringing various technologies under one umbrella has been made clearer than ever and I’m not sure why people have such a problem with that because umbrella terms simplify things and I believe that’s a good thing.

    Think of the English language as an analogy. It is composed of several variations of different languages (did you know the word pajamas is Indian?) but if a teacher were to ask a student to write an English paper, he or she wouldn’t instruct that person to only use words from a certain origin. That would just make things way too confusing.

    Ultimately, although there are still semantic challenges to be faced (namely among the multimedia formats and CSS3 syntax across browser platforms), the true idea of HTML5 now holds strong. HTML doesn’t stand for font tags and tables. It stands for hyper text markup language, which accurately describes all of the technologies incorporated.

    Also keep in mind non-developers won’t ask you to build an ‘AJAX driven application using jquery and CSS3.’ They’ll ask you if you know ‘HTML’ and leave it at that. At least now they might get the impression that web development has evolved and is more comprehensive than ever before, which it is.

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  9. Why so much hassle about using HTML5 as an umbrella name?
    We also use’greens’ to name vegetables, and not all vegetables are green. Why being so picky?

    The book ‘Dive into HTML5′ has chapters on geolocation, local storage, web workers… Should Mark Pilgrim change the name to “Dive into HTML5 and geolocation and local storage and…”?

    It is just a name, and everybody understands…

    If you want to do a workshop on pure HTML5, you call it “HTML5 Mark-up language Workshop” and everybody will understand too.

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    1. @Txemi

      “If you want to do a workshop on pure HTML5, you call it “HTML5 Mark-up language Workshop” and everybody will understand too.”

      That would make the acronym redundant.

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  10. As you say, nothing wrong with the badge itself, by all means use it, and it’s quite flexible in its look and feel.

    It’s the promotion of HTML5 as the umbrella term for almost anything that bugs me. As you point out.

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