A Brave New alt in {HTML5}

Posted on Monday, 4 August 2008 by Steve Faulkner

Update 08/08/09

What the King of HTML5 giveth, he taketh away. The use of { } is now HTML5 history.

You can wonder at the greatness of his latest proclamations of altness here: Requirements for providing text to act as an alternative for images.

update end.

After much data crunching Of  ‘billions of web pages’, in his infinite wisdom the King of HTML5 has given us a whole new way of using the alt attribute in HTML5:

<Hixie> i think i might make alt=”” required and say that when you don’t know what the image is, you have to say what kind of image it is (e.g. “uploaded image”, “photo”, “thumbnil”, or whatever) and put that in braces in the alt=”” attribute, as in alt=”{photo}”

The results of this can now be found in the W3C HTML5 draft . I myself have not had time as yet to fully digest his latest proclamation. On the face of it, the new way does not comform to WCAG 2.0 guidance, but much of what the previous versions of the draft stated didn’t either. As is the modus operendi of the editor, not co-operative exchange occured with WAI prior to the changes even though the HTML WG charter clearly states:

The HTML Working Group will cooperate with the Web Accessibility Initiative to ensure that the deliverables will satisfy accessibility requirements.

The editor was clearly cognisant of the fact that collaboration was sought within the HTML WG and the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative), but chose once again to impose his ideas on the specification without even a sniff of consultation. Consensus and collaboration not confrontation, is what is required to make the next generation of HTML one that works for all.

It must be said that the editor is not fully responsible for the farcical nature of the The HTML WG process. W3C process is ridden rough shod because nobody within the W3C is prepared to stand up for the claimed process. Any thoughts on why?

About Steve Faulkner

Steve is the Technical Director at TPG. He joined The Paciello Group in 2006 and was previously a Senior Web Accessibility Consultant at vision australia. He is the creator and lead developer of the Web Accessibility Toolbar accessibility testing tool. Steve is a member of several groups, including the W3C Web Platforms Working Group and the W3C ARIA Working Group. He is an editor of several specifications at the W3C including HTML 5.1, ARIA in HTML, Notes on Using ARIA in HTML and HTML5: Techniques for providing useful text alternatives. He also develops and maintains HTML5accessibility.


  1. Maybe it’s an experiment with the process. Gotta say though, “i think i might” doesn’t sound like it’s set in stone… sounds like the start of consultation. Granted not an approach to everyones’ taste.

    tbh I’ve heard worse suggestions … “uploaded image” is no substitute for descriptive alt text, but might be better than nothing. Like more time to digest myself. Personally I think it will be moot as I hope I write proper alt text … although I must confess to a rather large backlog of uploaded images on flickr 🙁

  2. I read the spec, and it seems to me that it seems very well thought out. I’m happy now that alt is required again, that was my real problem with the previous spec.

    The only issue I can think of with the new proposal is that existing screen readers will handle something like {photo} poorly. But new versions can adapt, and existing versions don’t totally break, so that isn’t too much of a problem.

    I’m wondering if there are any issues which are dealt with by the WCAG spec where the new HTML5 proposal is in conflict? Of course, I am assuming merely being “in conformance with HTML5” is supposed to be much less stringent than “accessible complying with WCAG 2.0”, Isn’t that correct?

  3. Hi ben,
    A problem with the ‘new’ approach is that development of the specification is mostly reactive not interactive, once stuff goes into the spec, it is next to impossible to get it modified if the editor disagrees and he appears to think he knows best on all subjects. Unfortunately this leads people to turn to the use of the W3C process requirements, in order to force issues to be dealt with in a manner that does not exclude viewpoints the editor deems incorrect.

  4. Hi Gaurav,

    Gaurav wrote:

    I’m happy now that alt is required again, that was my real problem with the previous spec.

    The alt is still optional for when images are in an email that the user knows the recipient of can see the images, which seems an odd exception to me. So there is no absolute statement of requirement as in HTML 4.

    Besides the alt as it is known is not required, the alt content in many cases is not required to be a text alternative, but a description of the kind of image.

    The image is a key part of the content, and there is no textual equivalent of the image available. The string consisting of all the characters between the first and the last character of the value of the alt attribute gives the kind of image (e.g. photo, diagram, user-uploaded image).

    Gaurav wrote:

    I’m wondering if there are any issues which are dealt with by the WCAG spec where the new HTML5 proposal is in conflict?

    Whether the changes to the spec are considered in confict with WCAG 2.0 will be for the W3C WAI to decide. What I can say as in the previous version of the spec several of the alt usage examples do not conform to WCAG 2.0 guidance, these have been previously brought to the attention of the editor who rejected these as issues.

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