HTML5: Options and Opportunities


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If you talk to "those in the know" in the technology world, they'll tell you that HTML5 is really nothing new. In fact, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that "develops standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web," created its working draft of the "HTML5 Publication Notes" back in June 2008. While some of the new features afforded by HTML5 have already been incorporated into various webpages and applications, it's the iPad that made HTML go mainstream.

"HTML5 has been on the radar for a long time," says Randy Bradshaw, a principal of Click Here, a digital advertising and marketing agency in Dallas. "The launching platform for it, honestly, has been the iPad and, in essence, Apple's stance on Adobe and on Flash, in particular." Before the introduction of some of the features in HTML5, there really weren't any alternatives to Flash, he says.

Joshua Bixby is co-founder and president at Strangeloop Networks, a firm that designs, builds, installs, and supports hardware and software solutions that accelerate the performance of websites and web-based applications. Bixby says the term HTML5 has come to be used almost in the same manner as the terms Web 2.0 or Web 3.0 have been used-as a catchall phrase that represents the next evolution in online experiences. "People are trying to come to grips with what to call an interactive web experience in a modern browser," says Bixby. "Others have started to release these incredible interactive web experiences that we want to name. We want to call it something, so everyone is calling it HTML5."

"It's not the standard that's interesting," adds Bixby. "It's this idea of a new web application that is more dynamic, more integrated, more HTML-based than ever before."

Kevin Hanegan is an instructor at the University of California-Irvine Extension, where he will be teaching a course this spring called Creating Web Applications with HTML5. HTML5 creates a universal set of capabilities that require no plug-ins and are built-in, accessible to all, and free for consumers and developers.

Plug-ins have traditionally been created to offer various functionality to websites to enhance the end-user experience, says Hanegan. The downside of plug-ins, he says, is that they have to be downloaded-they're not built into the internet. That's not a big deal for users, he notes, but it can be for developers. For one thing, while plug-ins are generally free for users, they're not free for developers, who have to purchase
the software to use the functionality. Secondly, there are multiple plug-ins that must be purchased, learned, and utilized, depending both on the desired functionality and the browser being used to access the information. HTML5 will make the need for plug-ins obsolete.

Basically, HTML5 is the next evolution of HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the standard by which application developers create end-user experiences. "It's taking what has always been HTML and adding some key elements of it. It's somewhat of an evolution, but not a whole departure," says Click Here's Bradshaw. In fact, he notes, "Almost all of the mainstream browsers support some of the HTML5 elements." There are a number of improvements over the previous standard, he says, but four are most notable.

"No longer are you required to stream your audio and video files through a Flash plug-in. This significantly reduces download times and, theoretically, reduces the load on the CPU," says Bradshaw. The "canvas" tag is a new feature that allows graphics or other visual images to be rendered programmatically. This means that graphics and animations can be based on user interactions or other behaviors, he says. Google's experimental site, www.thewildernessdowntown.com, illustrates these capabilities but must be viewed in Google Chrome. For those who travel frequently, and for mobile workers, HTML5 will allow the ability to work with web applications even when offline. Geolocation will provide location-specific information for users based on Wi-Fi signals or GPS, which can then provide users with content relevant to their physical locations.

While all of this sounds great, there are some concerns or challenges that must be addressed. Chief among them is browser support for the new standard. Imad Mouline is the CTO of Gomez, Inc., the web performance division of the Compuware Corp., in Detroit. "The type of apps that are taking advantage of HTML5 tend to be mobile apps," says Mouline. "The problem with getting to that level on a desktop is that the browser market is very fragmented," he says. "The specifications haven't been fully implemented. Browsers that implemented HTML5 may not have implemented all of the same parts."

For developers, it becomes a chicken-and-egg scenario, he says: "Do I develop for HTML5 and hope people will start upgrading their browsers, or do I wait until the browsers have been updated?" One of the reasons adoption in the mobile market has been different, he says, is that people are simply using the built-in browsers that came with their devices.

However, he adds, "I think that as people start seeing what HTML5 and its capabilities can do, users might demand that level of sophistication and richness when they're dealing with apps, regardless of the device or browser." Consequently, user demand may help to drive broader adoption.

HTML5 "certainly has a lot of promise in the world I live in, but we have to have browsers adopt it," says Strangeloop's Bixby. The basics of the standard will be adopted, he says.

The question that remains is to what extent all of the functionality of the standards will be adopted and applied. "Producers aren't going to do it until the browsers do-those things will lag together," he says. The questions for website owners and application developers really becomes, "If we build it, will they come?"

"What I would certainly suggest is [for] somebody who's thinking about [adopting] HTML5 is to not simply sit back and say, ‘I'll wait until there's more adoption out there,'" says Mouline. "You need to understand who your users are and the proportion of people on HTML5 browsers, and you need to decide if you have a large enough percentage to actually go ahead and create at least some functionality in your website to leverage those capabilities." HTML5, says Mouline, can make a huge difference in the end-user experience. "If implemented correctly, you may be able to do so while making it simpler, faster and cheaper for you to run your site," he says.

Widespread use of HTML5 is not going to happen overnight, says Bixby. Instead, he predicts, "It will be adopted and we're going to see a lot of interesting things come out of that adoption."