More Compatibility Flavours

See also my previous posts on this issue.

So we’ve got backward and forward compatibility, and syntactical and semantical compatibility. (Quick recapture: Backward compatibility is the ability to accept data from older applications, forward compatibility the ability to accept data from newer applications. Syntactical compatibility is the ability to successfully (i.e. without raising errors) accept data from other version applications, semantical compatibility the ability to understand data from other version applications.)

So what else is there?

Noah Mendelsohn made clear to me one has to distinguish language and application compatibility.

Let’s see what this means when looking at syntactical and semantical compatibility. A language L2 is syntactically backward compatible with an earlier language L1 if and only if every L1 document is also an L2 document. Or to rephrase it: if and only if an application built to accept L2 documents also accepts L1 documents. Or (the way I like it): if and only if the set of L1 documents is a subset of the set of L1 documents:

L1 is a subset of L2

And of course L2 is forwards compatible with respect to L1 if, and only if, every L2 document is also a L1 document:

L2 is a subset of L1

This makes it quite clear that if L2 is both backward and forward compatible with respect to L1, both of the above diagrams apply, so L2 = L1:

L2 is L1

But this flies in the face of accepted wisdom! Of course both backward and forward compatibility is possible! HTML is designed to be forward compatible, is it not, through the mechanism of ‘ignore unknown tags’. And two HTML versions of course can be backward compatible, if HTMLn+1 supports everything HTMLn does. Yet the above diagrams speak for themselves as well. The distinction between language and application compatibility offers the solution. The diagrams only are about syntactical language compatibility. The HTML forward compatibility mechanism is about applications as well: HTML instructs browsers to ignore unknown markup. So the HTML compatibility mechanism is about browser, ergo application behavior.

HTML tells HTMLn browsers to accept all L2 (HTMLn+1) markup (and ignore it), and to accept all L1 (HMTLn) markup, and – not ignore, but – process it. (“If a user agent encounters an element it does not recognize, it should try to render the element’s content.” – HTML 4.01) Now this sounds familiar – that’s syntactical versus semantical compatibility, isn’t it? So HTML makes forward compatibility possible through instructing the application – the browser – to syntactically accept future versions, but semantically ignore them. The n-version browser renders n+1 element content, but has no idea what the tags around it mean (render bold and blue? render indigo and italic? render in reverse?).

Summing up: there is no such thing as two (different) languages L2 and L1 which are both back- and forward compatible. There is such a thing as two applications A1 (built for language L1) and A2 (built for L2) which are both back- and forward compatible: A1 must ignore unknown L2 syntax, and A2 must accept and process all L1 syntax and semantics:

A2 back- and forward compatible wrt A1

(Yes, and to be complete, this is a rewrite of an email list submission of mine, but vastly improved through discussions with Noah Mendelsohn and David Orchard, who may or may not agree with what I’ve said here…)

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