SAN MATEO, Calif. - Preparing for what many believe will be a post-PC world, the World Wide Web Consortium's HTML Working Group has completed a draft follow-on to Hypertext Markup Language 4.0 that targets handheld and TV-based devices. The Extensible Markup Language (XML) aims to make Web content more accessible on a diversity of non-PC platforms and thus has become a focal point for TV and wireless-data efforts.
W3C's HTML Working Group last month published a working draft for "reformulating HTML in XML." The group is shifting the activity into high gear just as consumer-electronics manufacturers are growing increasinlgy concerned about how the Internet, grown thus far on the desktop PC platform, will evolve beyond it.
Indeed, of all the emerging technology trends for consumer electronics, "the biggest unknown is the Internet," said Paul Liao, chief technology officer and president of Panasonic Technologies Inc. XML will embrace a diverse group of end-user systems through conformance profiles-document and device profiles that will specify the HTML tags a given device must support. The goal is to solve the growing problem of content interoperability across platforms. In collaboration with other industry groups, W3C hopes to define profiles for both TV and mobile platforms.
"Existing HTML pages tend to have lots of markup errors," said Dave Raggett, an editor for the HTML working group who has been working at W3C since 1995 on assignment from HP Labs. Developers, Raggett said, take this attitude: " 'If [the content] looks O.K. on my browser it's good enough, isn't it?' "
If the industry "can't clean up this mess" now, Raggett said, "the ability to repurpose Web content to a wide variety of device capabilities will be greatly compromised."
W3C has "very wisely brought together experts from many consumer-electronics manufacturers to specify standards amenable to their products, while providing a standard worthwhile to content developers," said working group member Ted Wugofski, chief engineer at Over the Moon Productions (Hurst, Texas), a wholly owned subsidiary of PC maker Gateway.
"While the W3C certainly cannot force anyone to follow one of these recommended profiles, the expectation is that as an open standard developed by members of the appropriate communities, there will be a strong incentive-based on the promise of interoperable content-to support the W3C profiles."
The new profiles "do not place specific requirements on the device manufacturers," Wugofski said. "Rather, manufacturers may use 'transformation agents' to adapt content written to a profile to the technologies supported on the platform."
If the set of HTML features supported by a given device can be precisely anticipated through the use of conformance profiles, then transformational agents can repurpose the Web content. The XML draft published in December states that "transformations may be applied by the author working on the Web site, at a proxy server under the control of an Internet-service provider, or in the
Under the proposed scheme, not only is XML a modular language, but the Web browsers can be implemented in a modular fashion, Wugofski said. "This is almost always overlooked when people talk about modularized HTML."
Modularized browsers free consumer-electronics companies from tying their offerings to proprietary browser platforms, such as Microsoft Corp.'s WebTV. "Consumer-electronics manufacturers can license or develop a basic XML parsing engine and the processors required by the platform," said Wugofski.
The XML effort, which began last summer, could sway the direction of industry debate or speed progress among other industry groups trying to bring Web content into TVs or handheld devices. Those industry groups include the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum and The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC)'s DTV Application Software Environment (DASE) Group.
The WAP Forum, which includes wireless-service providers and mobile-device developers, has been working on wireless-application interoperability and a standard XML-compliant Wireless Markup Language (WML). ASTC's DASE effort is developing basic building blocks to bring data and Internet services to digital TVs.
WAP and ATSC members have been actively involved in the XML effort. Individuals listed in the acknowledgments in the first working draft for XML include chief architects and engineers from such companies as Unwired Planet, Philips, Panasonic, WebTV, Microsoft, IBM, Netscape and Apple.
"For mobile-system designers, these [XML] developments mean that the future of Web technology will scale to mobile systems, and WAP is on a convergence course with that future," said Peter King, principal architect at Unwired Planet, a developer of software for mobile data devices. "For the service provider, the implication is that clients will evolve from having discrete sets of capabilities to a more continuous range of capabilities." That will open a range of possibilities for device makers, he said.
Wugofski, who is also the team leader for DASE, declined to comment on the latest progress within that group but did acknowledge that the W3C activities "will play an important role in specifying a presentation engine for ATSC."
ATSC, Raggett said, "is looking to W3C to sort out standards for the next generation of HTML and will leverage this for TV-specific profiles."
Indeed, the XML work is a component of a proposal for a Broadcast HyperText Markup Language (BHTML) put forward by the DASE chairman. But sources said the ATSC continues to be split between those pushing BHTML and those who advocate a competing specification launched by Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp. and a host of media companies. The competing group last summer founded the private Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF).
BHTML incorporates XML and scales back HTML elements and attributes by using parts of HTML 3.2, while integrating synchronization functionality. The ATVEF approach is based on a series of standard Internet specifications, including HTML 4.0. The biggest difference between the competing approaches lies in their use of Java software technology. The BHTML is designed to be tightly integrated with a Java Virtual-Machine based application execution engine. The ATVEF says it sees no need to support Java.
The XML work within W3C is expected to be completed around year-ends. ATSC's schedule is believed to be ahead of W3C's.