Until recently, the latest "official" HTML version was HTML 2.0, as specified in RFC 1866. It served its purpose very well, but many HTML authors wanted more control over their document and more ways to mark up their text and enhance the appearance of their sites.
Netscape, being the leading browser at that time, introduced new tags and attributes with every new version. Other browsers tried to duplicate them, but as Netscape never fully specified their new tags, this didn't always work as expected. It led to great confusion and problems when authors used these elements and then saw they didn't work as expected in another browser.
At about the same time, the IETF's HTML working group lead by Dave Raggett introduced the HTML 3.0 draft, which included many new and very useful enhancements to HTML. Most browsers only implemented a small subset of the elements from this draft. The phrase "HTML 3.0 enhanced" quickly became popular on the Web, even though it more often than not referred to documents containing browser-specific tags, rather than documents adhering to the HTML 3.0 draft. This was one of the reasons why the draft was abandoned.
As more and more browser-specific tags were introduced, it became obvious a new standard was needed. For this reason, the W3C drafted the Wilbur standard, which later became known as HTML 3.2. As they put it themselves: (in the document type definition, the formal specification)
HTML 3.2 aims to capture recommended practice as of early '96 and as such to be used as a replacement for HTML 2.0 (RFC 1866). Widely deployed rendering attributes are included where they have been shown to be interoperable. SCRIPT and STYLE are included to smooth the introduction of client-side scripts and style sheets. Browsers must avoid showing the contents of these element. Otherwise support for them is not required.
Most of the extensions to HTML, as introduced by the various browser developers, were not specified as thoroughly as the HTML 2.0 specs do for the standard elements. This meant that the W3C had to "reverse engineer" the correct functionality for the extensions which were chosen for HTML 3.2. Since HTML 3.2 is defined in terms of SGML, some elements had to be defined slightly differently to make them legal.
HTML 3.2 is an attempt to write down what current browsers support or should support. This will hopefully ensure that a document which is written for Wilbur will be rendered in an acceptable way by all current browsers.
The next version of HTML, which is code-named Cougar, will introduce new functionality, most of which comes from the now-expired HTML 3.0 draft. Some of the elements from Wilbur already hint at what can be expected. For example, the SCRIPT and STYLE elements will be used in the future to allow inclusion of inline scripts and style sheets, although currently a browser does not have to support them. It only has to hide the contents of the tags.
As it's still very early, not many details about Cougar are available yet. You can get a preview of what's to be expected from the Cougar DTD. Cougar will introduce full style sheet support. This will allow authors to assign a style to a document easily, while keeping the HTML for its intended purpose: marking up the content of the document. It will also have better support for international documents.
One of the reasons that HTML 3.0 didn't make it, was that it was so big. Because of this, future versions of HTML will be introduced in a modular way, so browsers can easily implement them bit by bit. An example of this approach is RFC 1942, which describes a very extensive implementation of HTML TABLEs.
HTML 3.2 Reference ~ Elements by Function ~ Elements Alphabetically
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