Adobe “sabotaging” HTML5

Daringfireball linked an intriguing statement in Ian Hickson’s blog about Adobe apparently doing something “behind the scenes” to scuttle the canvas component of the HTML5 spec.

Net result: the latest publication of HTML5 is now blocked by Adobe, via an objection that has still not been made public (despite yesterday’s promise to make it so).

Gruber then linked to a rebuttal by Larry Masinter. (I’m not sure whether his framing of the rebuttal was sarcastic; mine would have been.)

I’ve been working on web standards since the beginning of the web in the early 90s, and standards for even longer; long before I joined Adobe. (Note 1) …

I’ve never seen anything as bad as this one, with people abusing their official positions to grandstand and promote proprietary advantage. I’ve blogged some about this, but I’d rather fix things along. (Note 2) …

The organization of work in W3C is determined by the “charters” of working group and the “scope” of he charters, so saying work is “out of scope” even if you are marking a snapshot of the (already published) documents as “Working Draft”, means you might rewrite the “Status of This Document” section to say that it might move. That’s what I was asking for, in the somewhat stilted language of “objection”. (Note 3)

Note 1: translation “I know that the trick with standards bodies is understanding how to manipulate procedural crap versus actually discussing stuff on its merit”

Note 2: “fix things along” — by arguing that the canvas API is out of scope for HTML5 unless the working group’s charter is redrafted.

Note 3: thanks for making that so clear.

The Ajaxian has a fascinating article on the subject (which obviously had its name changed, if you compare the URL to the current heading):

Sam Ruby: … while Paul requested that Larry post the substance of his objection on public-html yesterday, and Larry indicated that he would do so, to the best of my knowledge this has not been done

If nothing else, there are issues with consistency. Either it was public since whenever, or Larry Masinter is going to make it public shortly — but not both.

But heck, just go visit the email archives directly.

It basically seems to come down to something like this: the working group’s charter does not include 2D graphics, which means it shouldn’t be producing documents about 2D graphics. But they are supposed to be speccing out HTML5, which includes a canvas element, so that’s in scope. No problem. But explaining what the canvas element does (which is, without describing its JavaScript API, precisely nothing) is, based on 2D graphics not being in scope, not in the charter. But, two years earlier, when this was pointed out, the chair decided that it was in scope because, say, speccing out an element without speccing out WTF it does is kind of pointless.

Masinter points out that at some point in the past, 2D graphics were in the charter (edit: correct link) and were explicitly removed. (Why? What was the context? Maybe the point was that singling out 2D graphics was pointless given the scope of the document. In other words, if we claim our goal is to take over “The World and Belgium”, does removing “and Belgium” from the list mean we’re no longer trying to take over Belgium? Does he object to the <audio> tag’s API being documented?)

Here’s what’s in the WHAT-WG HTML WG charter under Deliverables:

  • A language evolved from HTML4 for describing the semantics of documents and applications on the World Wide Web. This will be a complete specification, not a delta specification.
  • An extensible, serialized form of such a language, using XML.
  • A serialized form of such a language using a defined, non-XML syntax compatible with the ‘classic HTML’ parsers of existing Web browsers.
  • Document Object Model (DOM) interfaces providing APIs for such a language.
  • Forms and common UI widgets such as progress bars, datagrids, menus, and other controls.
  • APIs for the manipulation of linked media. (Edit: hilited this as well.)
  • Editing APIs and user-driven WYSIWYG editing features. (And this.)

(Edit: the WHAT-WG charter doesn’t appear to have a scope, so arguments about what’s in it are somewhat moot. Its deliverables include “Web Applications 1.0: Features for Application Development in HTML.” It’s hard to think of something more pertinent to this than API documentation for HTML5 tags.)

So, apparently (and the emphasis is mine) documenting the DOM API for every tag is explicitly in scope, but canvas is a special case because “2D graphics” aren’t explicitly in scope? Note that “video” or, heck, “text” aren’t explicitly in scope either. So are they “out of scope too”? (Edit: and in fact if you’re building a WYSIWYG editor in HTML5, why would canvas be irrelevant? Or must WYSIWYG editors only handle text?)

This is procedural bullshit, plain and simple.

  • I’m pretty sure you’re confusing the WHATWG and the W3C’s html working group, which are different. Here’s the (much longer) charter for the HTML working group:

    It’s unclear to me how normative this is, given that Chris Wilson stepped down 6 months ago or so — sourced here: — and the charter hasn’t been updated to reflect htat.

  • Ogzhn

    Your hatred against flash clouds your vision. Plain and simple. There are those claiming stupid things like “a good dictatorship is better than a bad democracy”. Don’t let your hatred fool you.

  • Colin—as far as I can tell we looked at the same document, and then I managed to link the wrong one. Thanks for pointing that out. As you’ll see from my text I referred to the deliverables in the document you linked (the HTML Working Group charter). The WHATWG charter’s deliverables are more vague, but include “Features for Application Development in HTML” — for which canvas API documentation would appear to be covered in spades.

    Ogzhn—Some people may prefer a good dictatorship over a bad democracy, but that’s hardly my position. It’s pretty clear that Masinter is being disingenuous. All of his stuff about scope of the charter is plainly just stalling tactics. How is documenting the behavior of HTML5 tags out of scope for the people defining HTML5?

  • Rezmason

    I agree that Masinter seems to be blocking parts of what most of us would agree falls under the scope of an HTML5 specification. Thanks to you, all that is pretty well documented.

    However, I don’t agree with the commonly accepted argument that Masinter is trying to sabotage the HTML5 effort “so that Flash might benefit”. This guy has been a member of the web standards community for decades; I’m sure there are a dozen reasons why he would do what he is doing that are not apparent to you or to us, just as a seasoned politician may have a dozen reasons for voting against a popular bill.

    Masinter is not some kind of mischievous oaf with a secret agenda. He is probably more sensible on these matters than anyone outside the working group.

    I’d like to quickly remind you that Adobe’s last attempt at working with a standards group resulted in ActionScript 3, a nice language that conforms to a standard that no longer exists. They jumped the gun implementing it, and now I feel it’s reasonable to assume that they (through Masinter) are taking greater caution. After all, Adobe will be making tools to work with HTML5 while the major browsers work on their support, and if has a flaw somewhere, perhaps giving it more time would be appropriate.

    Since I’m not in the working group, I don’t know if that’s true. But Masinter and some other members have expressed similar sentiments. Rather than accusing him of sabotage, we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

  • Ogzhn

    I don’t support Masinter’s position but he is not alone criticizing the procedure. Just look at hundreds of mails from Shelley. I very much respect Ian’s great effort and don’t want HTML 5 to become XHTML 2 but the whole process is managed and directed by Google and Apple and that is troublesome.

    Consider the case for video tag. There is a free codec but since Apple (and maybe Google) doesn’t support it, you have to double encode your movies to support all browsers. Why isn’t there an outcry against Apple? I think flash-haters like Gruber are using and manipulating this event.

  • It is interesting to see who is coming down on which side in the email discussions. I would disagree with the characterization of Shelley as agreeing with Masinter. It’s more like diplomatically saying nothing.

    Should the video tag support X and not Y? As far as I’m concerned the video tag should support pretty much everything it’s reasonably easy to support. In the long run, H264 hardware is a commodity and if you want your video to run as well as possible in as many places as possible, right now H264 (or, rather, specific H264 implementations) are your best bet. If Apple were to — say — support Ogg/Theora in Safari/Webkit on the Mac, it still wouldn’t work on cellphones (which rely on H264 hardware) so all it would do is encourage fringe developers to use incompatible codecs.

    A lot of people thought that the reason the ECMAScript 4 standard was pulled was precisely because Adobe was trying to end-run its competitors by developing ActionScript 3 in-house while simultaneously disguising the AS3 spec as its proposed standard whereupon “voila” they would have the only working implementation. This is exactly the kind of self-interested manipulation of standards bodies Masinter accuses nameless other people of engaging in (AFAIK Masinter was not involved with ECMAScript 4/Actionscript 3). It’s not like Apple is secretly building an HTML5 browser while openly pushing an HTML5 spec.

    I don’t think “Masinter is a mischievous oaf with a secret agenda”. I think he’s a smart guy doing what makes sense for his employer. In this case it’s slowing down HTML5 while leaving as few fingerprints as possible.

    Ignoring all the personalities involved: do you think documenting how HTML5 tags works is something the people developing the HTML5 spec should do?

  • Ogzhn

    By referencing Shelley, i didn’t mean his mails about this Masinter thing. If you search through the archives, there are lots of mails she wrote and bug reports opened and she also can be seen as a blocker for HTML 5 which judged by the criteria that we use for Masinter.

  • Advocatus Diaboli

    “However, I don’t agree with the commonly accepted argument that Masinter is trying to sabotage the HTML5 effort “so that Flash might benefit”

    It would be far more a stretch to believe an employee of a corporation on a standards board would act against their employers business interests. Employers and their money don’t always supply the prime motivation for employees behavior–but that’s the way to bet. Money is often the root cause of such procedural skull duggery, jiggery-pokery, and shenanigans.

    Gruber doesn’t hate Flash because it’s from Adobe–he hates it because it’s slow, resource-hogging, poorly-implemented, even more poorly maintained, buggy, and abused more often than used well. It is Franken-code and we have our pitchforks and torches out because simply must die.

  • Andrew

    The way I have been seeing things is based on this quote from the charter:

    “There is a single specification deliverable for the HTML Working Group, the HTML specification, a platform-neutral and device-independent design with the following items in scope: ”

    Which precedes the section you quoted that lays out the contents of that specification.

    It seems that Larry is arguing that by delivering these as separate documented specifications they are adding to the deliverables and thus the additional deliverables are out of scope. It has nothing to do with the scope of the Canvas API and its pertinence to the HTML5 spec, merely the number of published documents.

    Based on the emails Larry has asked that the addition to scope either be updated in the charter (a tedious process I understand and thus the chairs wish to avoid it) or documented in the ‘Document Status’ section of the specifications such that it is understand that CURRENTLY the document is not a deliverable of the charter, but is expected to be upon next rewrite. I really have no idea why they can’t take 5 minutes to do this as it DOES seem a valid objection.

    You guys are bitching about the procedural BS holding up the process, but if they agreed to follow the process, then they NEED TO FOLLOW IT, not cut corners.

  • And here I was going to write a diatribe about muddying the water and all that but TONIO did such a sterling job for me. I think TONIO’s assessment is dead on.

    The ‘Old Adobe’ rep would have said something like this:

    “I should probably recuse myself from this discussion due to conflict of interest, but I have an objection and here’s why (brief reasons 1, 2, 3).”

    The ‘New Adobe’, that has about 60-90 days to formulate something for a device that’s totally anti-Flash that relies on HTML5 as a pivotal technology says,

    “I have an objection, which you can go look up yourselves on the public mailing list. Oh, you want me to repeat it briefly? I’ll forward it in email later.”

    So yeah, hello delaying tactic. Why?

    Because (I think) Adobe has put all their eggs and resources in the Flash basket. They’re NOT a ‘tool maker’ anymore per se. They’re TRYING to make Flash a ‘platform’ in the way that the iPhone is a ‘platform’. And they have about 60 days before the iPad hits to prove that Flash is even relevant to the enduser experience.

    The problem is that ‘Flash’ as end-users see it is a crappy browser plugin. Not a runtime, development environment or anything else. That’s all closed and under the hood as it should be.

    The other problem is that software per se is NOT a ‘platform’, hardware + software is. With most of the weight put on the hardware. Microsoft is the ONLY exception to this rule, and they have an entire OS. And we’ve all seen how hard that game is played.

    Adobe is not only trying to beat Apple at their own ‘platform’ game with *just* software, their entire future is riding on a *plugin*.

    That’s why the ‘new Adobe’ folks are so thin-skinned about a *plugin*. And abuse the word ‘ubiquity’ so much.

    -Drunken Economist

  • Rezmason

    “Do you think documenting how HTML5 tags works is something the people developing the HTML5 spec should do?”

    If a tag’s documentation is clear and complete then I think it belongs in the spec.

    By “complete” I mean finished, but also devoid of any references to other, parallel technologies. There should be no mention of JavaScript, Flash, SilverLight, Webkit, et cetera.

    It’s my belief that Adobe (Masinter) wants the canvas tag documentation to be clearer or to be more complete. Adobe is heavily invested in graphics and web technologies, and will suffer as a company if the canvas tag is poorly specified. It’s in their best interest.

    Advocatus: It doesn’t matter at all why Gruber hates Flash. He’s begun to behave like the journalists he ridiculed only a few weeks ago, who jumped the gun writing opinion pieces on the iPad before its debut. In this case, he accused Adobe of sabotage before all the facts were in.

  • “There should be no mention of JavaScript, Flash, SilverLight, Webkit, et cetera.”

    JavaScript? How does one document a JavaScript API without mentioning JavaScript?

    “Adobe is heavily invested in graphics and web technologies, and will suffer as a company if the canvas tag is poorly specified. It’s in their best interest.”

    What color is the sky in your world?

  • Andrew: we’re bitching about Masinter using procedural BS to slow down the process. Ever heard of a filibuster?

    Oh you might find this link informative:

    “Changing the charter is in fact a big deal – it’s a lot of work, takes a long time, and could lead to all sorts of unexpected changes. The charter is not generally updated for changes of chairs, nor for changes in deliverables that are within the original charter scope.”


    “Reopening the issue of immediate mode graphics being in scope is out of order unless someone has new information that was not available at the time of the original decision. And while anyone is free to make a Formal Objection to that old decision, such an objection would neither be timely nor likely to be effective (since this decision has already been reviewed by everyone who would be expected to review it).”

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  • Ogzhn

    Adobe doesn’t earn money from flash player, they earn from content authoring and publishing tools. They can (and possibly will) develop a tool for SVG publishing and canvas support.

  • TT

    Actually, Adobe make a lot of money from licensing fees for embedding Flash Player in OEM and ODM platforms.

  • “They can (and possibly will) develop a tool for SVG publishing and canvas support.”

    They already do the former (Illustrator) and yes to the latter. If Adobe were thinking of HTML5 as an opportunity first and a threat to Flash second this post probably wouldn’t exist. The sad thing is that Macromedia sat on its ass for a long time w.r.t. Flash development. Only very recently (post Adobe takeover) has Flash’s development UI been improved and Flash started being optimized for hardware acceleration and power consumption. Way too late.

  • Rezmason

    “JavaScript? How does one document a JavaScript API without mentioning JavaScript?”

    They’d document JavaScript APIs in a separate spec. A JavaScript API for HTML5 just doesn’t belong in the HTML5 specification. A Silverlight API wouldn’t belong in the spec either.

    “What color is the sky in your world?”

    I like that. But the commonly held belief that Adobe’s success is the inverse of HTML5’s success is a total fiction. I think I’m being reasonable; here’s my thought process.

    Adobe is primarily in the business of making tools. The Flash Player doesn’t increase its cash flow directly; they make money from the IDE. Most of their tools make some use of HTML, including Dreamweaver, Photoshop and InDesign, and in order for their tools to stay on the cutting edge, they’ll need to generate HTML5 markup that follows the spec. That definitely includes the canvas tag. That’s why I think it’s in Adobe’s best interest to ensure that HTML5’s spec is clear and complete.

    I’d like to hear a counterexample. What color’s your sky: has Adobe done anything recently that debunks my argument?

  • I don’t think whether something is part of a specific document or not is germane. We’re discussing whether something is “in scope” or not. Clearly it’s in scope, whether it’s in document A or B or document P appendix Q.

  • From my reading there are two ways to go around the Working Group Chairs and block the publication of a document: A Formal Objection, and an Appeal of the Chair’s Decision.

    Philippe Le Hégaret kicked this off by saying the W3C wasn’t going to approve publication of the documents in questions due to a Formal Objection, and today responds to the issue in the comments to a blog post at

    Also, on Twitter Larry Masinter has said he didn’t file a Formal Objection:

    At this point the only way that some secret mailing list drama could be blocking HTML5 is if the W3C just plain ignores its own processes.

  • So, the formal objection that was preventing approval never happened? There’s two interpretations of this that come to my mind: either it never happened (as is now being said), or it did happen and work was done behind the scenes to make it unhappen and be deniable. Which is more consistent with the facts as we know them? If there was never a formal objection, blah blah blah, then why didn’t Masinter say as much in his first rebuttal? So, reductio ad absurdum, the second seems to be true. In which case, it’s lucky that all this brouhaha happened.

  • You got me. If something did happen behind the scenes I’m damn grateful. If this teaches everyone to not have conversations off the record about what’s supposed to be a public spec process that might be the best think to come out of this entire tawdry mess.

    It looks like the W3C and the HTML5 Working group co-chairs were working based on where, in part, Larry Masinter said, “So I object to the chairs’ decision that these documents are in scope. I suppose a formal objection is decided by the domain lead, or appealed to the Director, and the team contact can help with this process?”

    So we’ve got the phrase “formal objection” in the mail, which the W3C parsed as “there is a Formal Objection” and which Larry states he means “I did have discussions about the process for escalating a concern if it came to that. But there couldn’t be a Formal Objection to a Decision, because no Decision had been made.”

    I suppose if one puts buts ones brain into Strict Mode that could be taken as questioning how the process works, and not claiming to be starting the process?

    If I type process one more time today I’m going to throw up on my keyboard.

    Why it took five days for a flat denial – after a member of the working group straightup asked for one – I don’t know enough about the history of these people to even guess. ( It certainly led to confusion not just by me or you or John Gruber, but by the co-chairs and by the W3C itself.

  • Let me correct my foolish optimism. Larry Masinter, Adobe’s official representative in the HTML5 WG, has raised an objection that has delayed publication of three documents that are related to HTML 5.

    “Therefore we feel that it would be ideal if we could resolve all or even some of the scope questions before these documents are published. In particular, we feel that it would be unfortunate to publish a document just to find out days later that it was considered out of scope….
    Accordingly, we would appreciate either an expeditious response to Larry’s inquiries (, or an outlook on when such a response will be made. If the request can be handled quickly, we would rather wait for the response. If not, we will find an alternate way to proceed. “

  • Ah so there was no formal objection insofar as he hadn’t gotten around to raising one yet? Haha.

    Way to “fix things along”.

  • Despite no Formal Objection being raised by “process”, the co-chairs have decided to punt to W3C management team anyway.

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