XHTML could speed up the Web

by Edd Dumbill

A burning question among pro-standards attendees at the 10th International
World Wide Web conference in Hong Kong last week was how to get browser and
editing tool vendors to implement XHTML.

XHTML is the latest incarnation of HTML. It uses an XML format, and
enforces a higher degree of strictness than HTML does -- XHTML documents are
either right or wrong, there's no halfway house where the browser tries to
recover. If you make an error, you have to fix it!

As with many web standards though, the speed of implementation in browsers
and editors is likely to be disappointingly slow, so what can users and
standards-makers do to encourage its uptake? Participants in the W3C "Town
Hall" meeting discussed just this. For XML geeks, the advantages are obvious
-- having XHTML web pages allows them to use tools like XSLT and other
XML-specific technologies to process the pages.

For web designers, XHTML is advantageous because it's an indisputable
standard -- write valid XHTML and you're more likely to get the same result in
each browser that implements it, as there's nothing browser-specific about any
of the elements in XHTML.

However, neither of those are necessarily a compelling reason for the
average user, who happily surfs around unaware that web designers have had to
jump through hoops to get the pages looking right. During discussions in the
meeting, though, one advantage came up that would benefit both vendors and
users: processing XHTML is simply much faster than processing HTML.

As XHTML is strict, the browser doesn't have to waste time doing a "best
guess" as to what the page should look like: the page is either correct, or it
isn't. What's more, it doesn't take much to add this feature to browsers -- if
a page's DOCTYPE is XHTML, then switch in the new, fast, XHTML parser, if not,
use the existing code you have already. Unfortunately, browser vendor
Microsoft was utterly noncommital about their plans to implement XHTML. Dave
Massey from Microsoft commented that they are "investigating" XHTML, and may
add it to their browser, but he couldn't say if or when.

Once again it seems that it must rest with the users to campaign for
standards compliance from vendors: so they can get fast-loading, predictable
web pages. Microsoft always say that they implement according to users'
priorities, so grassroots action seems like a potential route forward.
However, with millions of users, it seems that they're likely to listen to the
big spenders first -- what voice do average web users and developers have?