AJ's blog

March 10, 2011

HTML5 – Part II: New Standard for Web Applications

Filed under: HTML5, Software Architecture — ajdotnet @ 6:35 pm

As I laid out in the first post, a lot of people talk about HTML5, but there are also a lot of misconceptions – and misguided expectations – about HTML5. So, what is HTML5, anyway? And for whom?

HTML5 is a lot of things for a lot of people. For some it is a vehicle to rid the web of patent laden video formats. For Apple it is a means to keep Flash off iPhone and iPad. Microsoft uses it to push IE9. Some people are using it to – at least try to – bury RIA. Anything else…? Oh yes, some people actually look into HTML5 technologies.

In an attempt to join the last group, here is my opinion on what HTML5 is and what it will mean.

The Standard

Formally, HTML5 is just the next version of HTML. (Period!) In terms of scope however it covers some more ground than “HTML” did before. Included is not only the markup language we know as HTML 4.1, but also the formerly distinct standards XHTML and DOM.

Given that HTML 4.0 became a recommendation in 1997 one can only say (shout!) “It’s about time!”. The fact that HTML 4.x cannot be considered “state of the art” for quite some time now is exactly the reason why browser vendors chose to implement proprietary extensions and why technologies like Flash – even ActiveX – have to fill in the gaps.

HTML5 is available as working draft (latest version today from January 2011) and all major browser venders are more or less committed to implementing it:

Regarding general support for HTML5, the industry for once agrees on something. Surprising enough. Regarding the details however, one has to be careful, which part of HTML5 is supported by which browser to what degree. It may be going to take some time – and more than one version number – until we get broad HTML5 support on all browsers.

For some time the critics gloated at the fact that HTML5 has barely reached “working draft” status and that “recommendation” status is not expected before 2022. Even if that were the case, it would have been totally irrelevant, as the industry is implementing and therefore standardizing parts of HTML5 right now. Additionally the W3C group is just now reconsidering its approach and looking for a more timely “delivery”. TODO

So far for the term, now for the content…

The Details

In the details, HTML5 is a conglomerate of different – and not necessarily related – improvements and new features. Of course this includes the two features mentioned mostly: video and 2D graphics (a.k.a. “canvas”).

Video is nothing spectacular: It simply displays a video, albeit without depending on some 3rd party plugin (namely Flash). Benefit for web developers: a standardized API based on HTML and JavaScript (rather than having to learn another technology). Benefit for the user: He can watch the video, independently on the device and plugin availability.

Canvas allows 2D graphics, even (with JavaScript) animated. This again allows (in principle) to address use cases formerly the domain of Flash. Diagrams for usage statistics, stock exchange rates, and so on. Contrary to simple (server rendered) images this could be including user interaction. This even may include more complex things, like web games; the technology is up to it, as this classic proves.

Regarding multimedia, one probably hast to mention audio support for a complete picture.

Video and canvas are mentioned quite often, probably because they constitute the use cases today most often addressed using Flash. Still, it would be unfair to reduce HTML5 to these two.

If it comes to plain old markup code HTML5 offers some improvements regarding java script control, as well as semantic tags like “header” and “footer”.

Regarding user interaction HTML5 offers new types of input fields (e.g. date picker), complete with validations (e.g. textbox with email address). Also add APIs for drag-and-drop, browser history management, and some other.

You may find this in more detail at the W3C or on Wikipedia. A nicely illustrated introduction can be found here (German, but the pictures shouldn’t need translation ;-)).

Yet this still doesn’t conclude the list. For a complete picture one has to name topics closely related to (even if not formally part of) HTML5: CSS3, Web Storage, and (especially for mobile applications) Geolocation.

It should be noted that the recent improvements in JavaScript execution in all major browsers (well… – IE starting with IE9) also contribute to HTML5: Many of the features unfold their full potential only with scripting. It’s a fair assumption that HTML5 will cause a further growth in scripting in general, and probably the adoption of respective AJAX frameworks.

The Impact

At a closer look HTML5 is a mixture of rather different and unrelated things – none of them especially outstanding. Basically HTML is only upgraded to accommodate current state-of-the-art technologies. All together a (long overdue and therefore a little extensive) evolution, but certainly no revolution or “groundbreaking upgrade”, as some like to think.

Therefor the relevance of HTML5 is not the functionality itself. It stems from two facts:

  1. The broad support from all major browser vendors. No matter why they do it, that fact that they agree on HTML5 in such an unequivocal and joined fashion is without precedence. This will likely ensure that all browsers level on comparable features and capabilities. Which is important to break todays disparities and incompatibilities. HTML5 shows all promises of becoming a platform for the web that is state-of-the-art as well as broadly available. Something HTML has increasingly failed at in recent years.
  2. The timely appearance together with the emerging mobile ecosystem (smart phones, pads). In this area we have a far more diverse and inhomogeneous platform landscape than on desktops (iOS, Android, WP7, other mobile OSes, desktop OS adaptions). No platform has a dominance similar to Windows, thus vendors need to address more than one platform. And web applications built for mobile devices are the only feasible cross platform approach available. Even if HTML5 lacks full device integration (e.g. phone integration or multitouch), it goes a long way with web storage, geolocation, and rudimentary offline capabilities.

To conclude: HTML5 is not going to be some academic standard, it will be a true and broadly supported industry standard. Together with browser improvements, especially regarding script engines, HTML will become an adequate development platform for state-of-the-art web applications and the emerging mobile area.

For web developers HTML5 is a good thing. At least as long as the agreement among the browser vendors holds – and as long as we don’t have to wait another 10 years for the next version.

That’s all for now folks,
AJ.NET

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