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By now, if you've paid any attention at all to web design, you've probably heard of HTML5. That's because there's so much hype surrounding it that it's really hard to get a clear picture of what exactly HTML5 is and how it impacts the process of learning web design. And because of this, you might be a little bit confused as to the best route to take when learning HTML, and where you should start. The best way to clear that up is to take a brief look at the history of HTML and where it stands today. You can trace the HTML's history way back to 1991, when Tim Berners-Lee published a document called "HTML Tags." This document described a set of tags that can be used to mark up the content of online documents.
This eventually led to the publication of the very first HTML specification: HTML 2.0 in 1995. HTML 3.2 then followed in 1997, only to be replaced by HTML 4.0 later the same year. Now the early days of HTML largely mirrored the Internet itself as the specifications matured right alongside the web. And the browser vendors often ignored the earlier specifications, proposed their own tags, or even implemented them in different ways.
By the time HTML 4.0 was published, the web community began to push browser developers to support the specification as it was written, and HTML 4.0 support nearly became universal. Around 2000 the W3C--that's the standards body responsible for publishing HTML--began the process of trying to move HTML towards XML by publishing the XHTML 1.0 specification. Now, their goal was to eventually have HTML follow the stricter rules of XML and have the language be more extensible.
For the most part it was exactly like HTML 4.0 with really only a few presentational tags removed and slightly stricter syntax rules. In fact, there are three different flavors of XHTML. There's transitional, strict, and frameset. Now transitional tells user agents to be a little bit more forgiving of syntax errors, while strict tells user agents to enforce strict parsing rules, even to the point of halting the loading of pages if errors are encountered. It's that degree of strictness that eventually doomed XHTML as adopting that type of error handling would basically break thousands of legacy sites all the way across the web.
Work on the XHTML 2.0 specification stagnated, and in 2009 the W3C dropped the charter, which halted all the work on it. That leads us to HTML5. While the W3C was so busy kind of spinning its wheels, if you will, on XHTML, a group of organizations and individuals got together in 2004 to continue the work on HTML, basically attempting to move the HTML 4.0 specification forward. And this group called themselves the Web HyperText Application Technology Working Group, which is usually referred to as the equally awkward WHATWG.
Their specification, which was entitled Web Applications 1.0, eventually was adopted by the W3C and renamed HTML5. Currently, the W3C works on publishing a stable version of this specification, while the WHATWG continues to work on what they call a living standard of the specification. Basically, what that means is they've removed the version number, simply referred to it as HTML. They just continued to update it. As a standard, HTML5 really isn't that different from HTML 4.
It introduces a few new elements. It gives user agents clear rules about how HTML should be parsed and how errors should be handled. But where the specification really diverges from HTML 4.0 is its focus on building applications. Things like drag and drop, location detection, and support for drawing services like canvas make it more of a platform for developing applications than a mere markup language. Now, for the most part, the W3C has split all those application-focused areas into their own specifications, so a lot of what you hear referred to as HTML5 is actually a collection of individual specifications.
What does that all mean for you? For the moment, the bulk of sites online use either HTML 4.0 or XHTML 1.0. To be honest, there's not a huge difference between pages that use HTML 4, XHTML, or even HTML5. XHTML requires slight differences in syntax and HTML5 introduces a few new elements. For the most part the biggest decision you'll be faced with is which doc type to use, which we'll cover a little bit later on. My advice is that if you're brand-new to web design, stick with learning the HTML 4.0 syntax.
Then learn the new tags that HTML5 gives you and when it's appropriate to use them and gradually add those newer HTML5 features as you become more comfortable with writing clean, well-structured HTML.
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