HTML5: Designed Specifically for the Interactive Web

In discussing HTML5, there is a temptation to focus on the features that are new and different. But to look at them too closely before taking a step back would miss its larger impact.

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HTML (HyperText Markup Language) defines how a Web browser such as Firefox or Microsoft Internet Explorer will interpret text instructions, the source code that controls the appearance and content of Web pages. HTML was originally created to make it easier for academics to show each other documents. The Web has by now moved beyond simple document display. But its use as a framework for developing rich, responsive applications has been limited. Differences among browsers and the need to rely heavily on plug‑ins has complicated application development. As network bandwidth has become less of an obstacle, the pressure to reform Web standards has grown.

HTML5 is the response. It moves us noticeably closer to a world in which high-performance, interactive Web applications are the norm rather than the exception. In industry, HTML5 will likely impact human-machine interface and mobile devices, and will enable collaboration using applications that used to be more at home running on the desktop.

HTML5 represents a consensus—even if an uneasy one—that Web standards must contribute to an unencumbered field for application development. The HTML5 standard is not yet complete, although much of it can be used now; whether HTML5 does the job ultimately depends on how widely it is adopted. “Nothing is truly certain, but all of the signs are in alignment,” says Molly Holzschlag, who practices, teaches, and writes about Web design. She is also an invited expert to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, www.w3.org) HTML and GEO (geolocation) working groups. “We have broad and clear commitment to HTML5 implementation from all the browser manufacturers, and we also have a statement of commitment to the expansion of HTML5 from the W3C. If for no other reason, HTML5 is historic because nothing like this level of agreement has happened before.”

This level of agreement does not mean that sharp debate and even outright conflict are likely to disappear from the Web community any time soon. Ideologies, technical alternatives, personalities, and a great deal of money in the balance make that unlikely. Still, there is no mistaking the tone of practicality in HTML5.

The last attempt to remake HTML, XHTML, failed because XHTML was too different. On the other hand, the syntax of HTML5 adds fit and finish to the syntax of HTML 4, and HTML5 is backward compatible. HTML5 extends outward, dovetailing with other areas of Web technology such as storage, offline, and geolocation. “HTML5 is really an umbrella term for a range of specifications that together will define the Web application environment,” says Richard Clark, head of interactive at KMP Digitata, Manchester, United Kingdom (www.kmp.co.uk).

Pleasing programmers

HTML5 clearly aims to please programmers. Ian Hickson, the editor of the HTML5 specification, says, “HTML5 will definitely make Web applications easier to develop and maintain.” Before HTML5, each browser handled errors differently. HTML5 includes error handling as part of the standard so that all browsers handle errors in the same way. Expanded data types, such as “URL” and “email,” and validation incorporated into HTML5 forms eliminate a lot of programming donkey work.

“Native media elements—‘audio,’ ‘video’ and ‘canvas’ (for scriptable vector graphics)—make up much of the core excitement about HTML5,” says Holzschlag. “They are also controversial. It will be interesting to see which audio and video codec(s) win the day.”

The Web needs change built into it, and HTML5 aspires to achieve that. “HTML should evolve continuously, with elements and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) slowly added and removed as needs change,” says Clark. “After HTML5, with some luck, there will never be a need for HTML6.”

Marty Weil, martyweil@charter.net, is an Automation World Contributing Writer.

World Wide Web Consortium, W3C
www.w3.org

KMP Digitata
www.kmp.co.uk

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