HTML5 – The Revolution will not be Televised

Monday, August 24th, 2009

The Seeds of Change

There’s a lot of buzz being generated about HTML5 just now and I for one welcome the discussion that it has provoked. I’d always kept half an eye on the ongoing controversy regarding whether it was better to use the XHTML or HTML 4.01 standard. To add fuel to this fiery debate, as HTML5 gained traction it was announced that work on XHTML 2 spec would be discontinued. Many people felt that this vindicated the HTML 4 camp’s arguments and that XHTML was dead. The truth of course was slightly more complicated as HTML5 can be reasonably presented as XHTML. Either way we now seem to have one standard to unite behind which brings us closer to designer’s HTML utopia, where markup can be written once and work across all browsers. I believe a critical point has been reached.

So what advantages does HTML5 offer? Well it basically provides an open framework for a richer user experience. To name a few features without creating a huge list; it supports audio, video, vector based graphics and animation, geolocation and drag and drop. Check out the spec for more info.

Browser vendors are only now starting to implement some of the HTML5 features within their latest and greatest releases. Safari 4, Firefox 3.5, Chrome 3 and even Opera 10 to a greater or lesser extent now support HTML5. Internet Explorer being the obvious ‘elephant in the room’. It’s true that the HTML5 spec has yet to be finalised and depending on who you believe will not be finalised until 2022, but it seems this is less important than it sounds. What we are starting to see is something relatively new, the web development community getting behind a standard and actively pushing it forward. Control lies, now more than ever in the hands of web developers, the end-users, if you like, of the standards. It might seem futile to adopt a standard before it is finished, especially given that probably less than 10% of the installed browser base is currently taking advantage of it in any meaningful manner, but it’s worth considering that Google have adopted HTML5 as the markup of choice for their up and coming Wave product and also consider that Webkit is now starting to support HTML5 and that it is the rendering engine used by Chrome, Android, Safari and PalmPre OS and presumably the recently announced Google OS.

Corporation and Community

It seems that it’s not so much about the corporations anymore, more about the community. Not all browsers support HTML5, so what does the community do about it? It creates ‘patches’ for these browsers. These patches are usually written in JavaScript and aim to introduce HTML5 compliance to browsers that don’t support it. HTML5 introduces many new aspects and behaviour and various authors are working on different aspects of the spec, Dean Edwards is making fantastic progress on making Web Forms 2.0 work across all browsers. Erik Arvidsson has done some great work creating a library for emulating the Canvas tag on Internet Explorer as have others, Jacob Rask is working on HTML5 CSS Reset and then there’s people like us who hope to make contributions to the smaller aspects of the HTML5 spec such as audio. This isn’t a unified effort, at least not yet. But a common binding force that unites them is that they are all Open Source solutions, so anyone could come along, bundle them together and create a comprehensive patch for any browser. Of course the more comprehensive the support the more complex things become and I imagine Internet Explorer 6 support is the worst case scenario.

The Fly in the Ointment

To diverge and talk about Internet Explorer 6 for a moment. IE6, to put it kindly, does things ‘in its own unique way’, and for this reason is the bane of many web designer’s lives. Some time ago I was experimenting with creating custom tags for IE6 and found out that although it is possible to implement them, it goes about this completely differently to any other browser. I’m guessing that being able to deal with custom tags is essential if you have to deal with tags that aren’t implemented in a particular browser. I’m not sure whether the current crop of ‘patches’ are supporting IE6 but I can certainly imagine that if they do, they’ve had to go around the houses to do so. IE6 unfortunately has a large install base inside many large corporations. Many companies rolled out intranet applications when IE6 was standard on the corporate desktop and so were targeted specifically to that one browser. It’s hard for a company to justify re-writing these applications to work on any other browser. The “if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it” mentality is a strong one, especially where spending money is concerned. While web sites and internet based applications continue to work, corporations will have no incentive to upgrade or provide another browser for surfing the web with. There are signs though that this will change in the near future. Whole movements have sprung up against IE6, large and established sites have discontinued support or are thinking seriously about dropping it. The IE6 legacy cannot go on for ever.

There is however a price to pay for using these ‘patches’. Undoubtedly browsers that don’t support HTML5 natively will run more slowly using the patches to support it. They do anyway you might counter – people use them just the same. JavaScript is light, it can be compressed, it can be cached, it can be hosted on CDNs. I personally don’t think this a real issue and if users find that it is, they can always upgrade. Accessibility is the other key issue that needs to be addressed, but I will leave that for another discussion.

May we Live in Interesting Times

If you think about it for a minute, what is going on now, happening right under our very noses is nothing short of a revolution, a seismic shift in power towards the community and away from the browser vendors, the consequences of which cannot be underestimated. The W3C has loosened its grip on the HTML specs and we now have the WHATWG community, and it appears that most browser makers are listening attentively to the new combined web design and standards community. It’s all about the community. It doesn’t seem to even matter when a spec will be finalised, significant chunks of it are being implemented now, people are using them and the community is developing for them. Slowly but very surely we are approaching web designer’s nirvana, where not only does a modern markup language incorporating many new and needed features finally exist, but importantly an environment is being created where designers have the possibility to implement these features once, knowing that in some way or another, they can make them work on all target browsers. All of this powered by the web development community who are finally taking control of their own destiny.
¡Viva La Revolución!

Mark B

Further reading:

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Monday, August 24th, 2009 AJAX, CSS, development, HTML, HTML5, javascript, Web Design

6 Comments to HTML5 – The Revolution will not be Televised

  • F1LT3R says:

    Very well written. A nice re-cap of landmarks passed by in recent times on the journey to a better web.

    A couple of things worth mentioning: firstly the death of IE6 issue:

    At my last contract with a search engine the approach to IE6 was… ‘Give IE6 users the text-based SEO experience with 0 frills’, and at my current contract with an educational software provider working with technologies such as Canvas, the approach is ‘IE6 support is no-longer provided as we can run Firefox inside Java’… yes you read that correctly. ;) It is worth noting, having talked to friends in the education sector, it appears that certain schools / colleges have officially switched to Firefox.

    Secondly: the statement “a seismic shift in power towards the community and away from the browser vendors”…

    There is definitely a seismic shift towards the community, agreed: but whether that is ‘away’ from the browser vendors is something I question. For example: if you were to compare the ‘power’ on a per-user basis across the vendor range, I think you would find that it has shifted unevenly. If you have ever submitted bugs to all the vendors, you’ll get a very clear picture of who’s users have the most power… and the leader of the pack, by miles and miles and miles, is clearly Mozilla.

    The guardians of ‘the spec’ are the browser vendors still. HTML5 was started by Opera ( as Web Apps 1.0 I believe ), reformed by Apple and Mozilla after the W3C declaring HTML dead. While more power has been granted to users, I think the actual control is still in the hands of the vendors. ( Someone correct me if I am wrong here. ) This being said, I think we may have reached the point where something new would have great trouble ‘getting in’ were users to make a big stink about it, which I guess is pretty seismic ( but still in the hands of the vendors ).

    As in history: the community always have the power to over-rule & if needs be… overthrow, but change is slow because ‘peace is easier’ and the old-flawed-concept that one man (perhaps woman) can fix all of our problems.

    When all is said and done, I guess the web, as with any of nature’s organisms, reflects fundamental shaping characteristics of life here on earth: survival, cohabitation, enticement & domination. IE: The web is a still military machine, fueled by advertising revenue. XD

    Vive la Rvolution!

  • MarkB says:

    @F1LT3R Thanks for your comment. Maybe I shouldn’t have bundled browser vendors/makers into one basket. I did so for the sake of brevity and also to avoid turning the post into one big anti-Microsoft rant ;) I think there is a world of difference between Mozilla and Microsoft as organisations and I have the greatest respect for the former considering them in many ways as part of the ‘community’.

    As for the seismic shift, well it wasn’t many years ago that Internet Explorer dominated the browser landscape and if Microsoft said it was Tuesday, it was Tuesday. I think now at least that some real competition exists the community could easily ignore or patch what a browser-vendor introduces and that vendors are very much concerned with what the community might accept.

    Another interesting point to ponder on is that perhaps browser vendors need the community. It is widely accepted that what makes Firefox to a large extent so popular, especially amongst developers, is its ability to be extended via add-ons. Google are now playing a game of catch-up trying to incorporate this functionality into Chrome and some would say they were mistaken to not include it from the start.

  • F1LT3R says:

    Yeah that’s interesting, you’re right, the people’s voice is definitely stronger, and good point about vendors ‘need’ the community. Very true. And they need them because… advertising revenue! :D Hehe, forgive me, I love pointing that out!

  • Interesting article. I’m not sure I’m quite as optimistic. I wrote a more detailed response:

    http://www.zachstronaut.com/posts/2009/08/24/web-revolution-concerns.html

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