Enterprise IT Consultant Views on Technologies and Trends

Jun 30 2011   2:42AM GMT

HTML5 holds promise though the formal release is expected to be in 2014

Sasirekha R Profile: Sasirekha R

HTML5 is worth considering today even if the formal release has three more years to go

Apple’s Steve Jobs “Thoughts on Flash” where he has stated that “Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content” seems to have revived interest on HTML5 and also debates on Flash vs. HTML5. It is true that HTML5 lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash).

HTML5, though still not released, is being supported by most browsers (of course, not all features are handled consistently) and has attractive features making it worthwhile to be considered right now. HTML5 supports video streaming, multi-threading, direct communications using Web sockets, asynchronous processing etc.  It is not just about Apple – Microsoft, Google, Mozilla etc. are committed to HTML5. Again it is not just Flash, HTML5 is capable of replacing technologies like Silverlight, Flex/AIR and JavaFX. Though there are debates about how each of them is better individually, the fact that HTML5 being a standard and supported by almost all browsers does make it attractive.

W3C recognized that HTML though used to describe a large variety of documents, was primarily designed for semantically describing scientific documents and is not adequate for “Web Applications”. Add the result is HTML5 that:

  • Defines a single language (HTML5) which can be written in HTML syntax and in XML syntax.
  • Defines detailed processing models to foster interoperable implementations.
  • Improves markup for documents.
  • Introduces markup and APIs for emerging idioms, such as Web applications.

HTML5, the draft effort of which has started in 2004, is still in the draft stage and has drawn considerable jokes about its possible release date (original proposed recommendation of 2022).  In Feb 2011, w3c finally announced that HTML5 release indeed has 2014 as the target. HTML5 aims at maintaining the openness of web technologies and reduce the need for proprietary presentation technology. HTML5 taking such a long time can be attributed to many factors – its history, scope, level of detail it aims at, inconsistencies in existing technologies and the need to be backward compatible etc. -detailed below.

HTML5 does have a broad scope and is intended to replace – DOM2HTML[Document Object Model Level 2 HTML Specification],HTML4,and XHTML1.

It is interesting to trace the history of HTML5 (which partially explains the long time it has taken).  At a W3C workshop in 2004, Mozilla and Opera presented the principles that underline the HTML5 and was rejected with membership voting for developing XML-based replacements instead. Shortly after, Apple, Mozilla, and Opera jointly announced their intent to continue working on the effort under the umbrella of a new venue called the WHATWG – Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group. W3C showed interest in HTML5 in 2006 and in 2007 a working group was formed and later W3C published the specification under the W3C copyright, while WHATWG site kept a version with the less restrictive license. W3C points out that “HTML specification is not identical to what is published in the WHATWG site”.

One of WHATWG core principles is that specifications and implementations need to match even if this means changing the specification rather than the implementations, and that specifications need to be detailed enough that implementations can achieve complete interoperability without reverse-engineering each other.

HTML5 defines an HTML syntax that is compatible with HTML4 and XHTML1 documents published on the Web. But some attributes from HTML4 are no longer allowed in HTML5. HTML5 is backwards compatible, in the sense that user agents are required to support the older elements and attributes (no longer to be used by authors) and the specification defines how user agents should process them in legacy documents.

The following profound view from W3C is worth repeating: “It must be admitted that many aspects of HTML appear at first glance to be nonsensical and inconsistent. HTML, its supporting DOM APIs, as well as many of its supporting technologies, have been developed over a period of several decades by a wide array of people with different priorities who, in many cases, did not know of each other’s existence. Features have thus arisen from many sources, and have not always been designed in especially consistent ways. Furthermore, because of the unique characteristics of the Web, implementation bugs have often become de-facto, and now de-jure, standards, as content is often unintentionally written in ways that rely on them before they can be fixed.”

W3C points out that:

  • HTML5 anchors the Open Web Platform that includes CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), WOFF (Web Open Font Format), various APIs, and more – the technologies already in use, at varying degrees of maturity and implementation.
  • Stable standards play an important role as reference points, making it easier for large numbers of independent implementers to achieve interoperability across diverse platforms, devices, and industries.
  • HTML5 is particularly important in the rich ecosystem of HTML producers and consumers, which includes authoring tools, browsers, email clients, security applications, content management systems, tools to analyze or convert content, assistive technologies, and unanticipated applications.
  • HTML5 would become an important standard across multiple industries, for years to come.

HTML5 is a massive effort involving 50 organizations, and more than 400 individuals from all over the world in the group, including designers, content authors, accessibility experts, and representatives from browser vendors, authoring tool vendors, telecoms, equipment manufacturers, and other IT companies.

HTML5 is targeted specifically at applications that would be expected to be used by users from disparate locations, with low CPU requirements (suitable for mobile and other hand-held devices). As Steve Jobs points out, WebKit – the open-source HTML5 rendering engine – is used in Safari Web Browser (used in all Apple products) as well in Google’s Android Browser and other Smart phones including Palm and Nokia.

HTML5 is expected to be used for applications including online purchasing systems, searching systems, games (especially multiplayer online games), public telephone books or address books, communications software (e-mail clients, instant messaging clients, discussion software), document editing software, etc.

IBM’s project Vulcan that represents the next generation of Lotus Notes, uses HTML5 along with web services, xPages, RESTful APIs to deliver collaboration across company boundaries.

Gartner’s refers to HTML5 as one with “The Power of Rich, the Ubiquity of Thinand it clearly conveys the aim (and hopefully the reality) behind HTML5. HTML5 does have the potential to make a large impact and bridging the gap between “Rich UI applications aimed at desktop” and “Web applications that can be accessed from any device, anywhere”. Today it does seem to have hiccups, but it seems to have the commitment from major players in the field and can be expected to get past them and become mainstream.

I believe with Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM supporting W3C’s HTML, Steve Jobs statement “New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too)” would prove to be correct.

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