The Truth Behind HTML5’s New Logo Fiasco

HTML5 LogoThere’s something about logos that makes them a magnet for protest. Whether it’s Starbucks (s sbux), Gap (s gps), 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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