HTML5: What does it mean for you?

One of the latest tech buzzwords given wings by the success of the iPhone and iPad is HTML5. Apple has pitched this up-and-coming iteration of the Web’s main building block as everything from an alternative App Store platform to the Flash-less future of multimedia on the Internet. But what exactly is HTML5, and what are its real-world benefits to average users like you and me?

HTML—HyperText Markup Language—is the fundamental blueprint of all Websites. When you visit a site, you see pages with text, photos, videos, and games. But your browser displays all that stuff because it downloaded a big chunk of HTML code that instructs it where to access that media and how to lay it out on a virtual page.

Web designers can build Websites using everything from powerful tools like Dreamweaver and Coda to plain ol’ TextEdit—in the end, the blueprint is still just a bunch of HTML text instructions for placing this picture over here and that chunk of text over there. HTML is an open standard, which means that (for better or worse) no single party controls it. And browser makers—like Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and Google—can support its various layout and content display features as thoroughly—or not—as they choose.

Upgrade from HTML 4

HTML5 is not new—it began life in 2004 as a seedling specification called Web Applications 1.0, from the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), a loose affiliation of browser manufacturers and others interested in browser technology. Since then, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—the primary Web standards organization with more than 300 members including Apple, Hitachi, Real Networks, Google, Opera, and Microsoft—lent a hand to fleshing out new specifications and features.

HTML5 is not ushering in a new era of the Web by itself. Many of the new features and fundamental changes are powered by accompanying technologies, such as CSS3 (the latest version of Cascading Style Sheets, the technology that lets Web designers control the layout and style of a page) and JavaScript, technology that powers special effects and interactivity on Web pages. So to keep this discussion simple, let’s stick with using HTML5 as an umbrella for these symbiotic technologies.

HTML5 covers a lot of ground when it comes to new features and better accessibility. Cool things like Gmail’s ability to work and store e-mail offline, geo-location features that automatically find where you are, and drag-and-drop moving of simulated windows and widgets in your browser, are all part of HTML5. Also included are new ways to make Web pages more accessible to things like screen readers for the blind, editing documents within browsers with Zoho Docs and Google Docs, and even dropping files from your desktop onto a Web page to upload them.

By standardizing the implementation of these features, browser makers have a much easier time building them into their apps. That means you can enjoy a more uniform, intuitive experience on the Web no matter which browser you use.

Flash fuss

One of HTML5’s most important innovations—and a lightning rod for the recent tussle between Apple and Adobe—is support for a new tag in the markup language called video. This Video tag makes it much easier for Web designers to embed video—a media type that is exponentially increasing in popularity thanks to fast Internet connections, powerful computers, and portable devices like the iPhone and iPad—without the need for Adobe’s Flash plug-in.

Flash technology—which is used for complex animations, interactive banner ads, video, and games on the Web—is created with an Adobe program called Flash. You experience Flash content in your browser via Adobe’s Flash Player plug-in, which was probably pre-installed on your Mac. Adobe also makes plug-ins for Windows and Linux systems, which mostly gives developers a “write once, run anywhere” advantage that is rarely seen in the technology industry.

Remember that letter Steve Jobs posted on the Apple Website, unassumingly titled, Thoughts on Flash? If you didn’t read it or our coverage, here are the Cliff Notes: Apple isn’t too keen on Flash.

In recent years, Apple has gone on the offense against Adobe’s Web media platform, publicly denouncing it as a poorly performing, crash-prone battery vampire whose days are numbered. Apple also cites Flash’s potential security flaws as a reason to protect its customers from malware and other unwanted or controversial software. Among Snow Leopard’s many tweaks, Apple separated plug-in processes from Safari 4 to improve stability, and specifically called out Flash’s penchant for crashing its browser.

Not surprisingly, Apple does not allow Flash on the iPhone or iPad—two devices that are leading the charge into a new world of portable, do-it-all devices that excel at rich media and gaming—two of Flash’s long-term specialties.

Apple has even gone so far as to rally publishers—particularly video-heavy outlets like TV studios—to create HTML5-friendly versions of their sites and services that work on the iPhone and iPad. While sites like YouTube or ABC.com deliver Flash video in most desktop browsers, they now offer HTML5 and QuickTime-friendly video when viewed on Apple’s iOS devices. To promote these efforts, Apple also maintains a Ready for iPad list of publishers who have hopped on board the HTML5 train.

Apple also has a business incentive to protect its App Store ecosystem; after all, Flash can be used to create rich, Web-based applications that could threaten App Store sales if developers chose to market them independently. Today, Apple gets 30 percent of every paid app, game, magazine, and even in-app purchase from its store—that’s a hefty chunk of revenue that Apple rakes in because Flash is banned from the party.

However, HTML5’s sovereignty over Flash is anything but a foregone conclusion. The standards based technology still faces a number of significant obstacles, the most fundamental of which is that it isn’t done yet, and might not be for another year, or three, or ten. (Just last week, the W3C cautioned against developers being too quick to adopt the unfinished spec.) When a platform as important as the Web’s native language is still in flux, it’s hard to get software makers and content producers to commit time and money to overhaul their code.

To further complicate HTML5’s potential as a Flash replacement for many uses on the Web and portable devices, Adobe has scored some recent wins with Flash. The company introduced a new version of its Flash Player plug-in this past summer that supposedly boosts performance. Adobe has also renewed its Flash support for non-Apple mobile devices, namely smart phones running Google’s Android mobile OS. Plus, Flash got an unexpected boost from Apple itself when the company recently relaxed its strict control over development tools for iPhone and iPad. Apps that are first created with Flash and then exported to a native App Store format may once again be submitted for App Store approval.

Consensus building

Because HTML5 is controlled by a large and amorphous standards body whose members have varying priorities, lack of consensus on key issues has delayed finalization of even small parts of the overall spec. Among the most important of these controversial issues is which video format(s) should be supported by default in HTML5’s new video tag.

Apple has had quite a bit of success pushing H.264 across the Web. iTunes Store video is distributed in (DRM-encumbered) H.264, and other major companies, like YouTube, ABC, CNN, and Fox have adopted it for their HTML5 initiatives. But portions of the H.264 technology are covered by patents, which in theory, could someday be used to force content makers to pay hefty licensing fees. Ogg is another HTML5 video format option being pushed by the open source community, but the W3C is also concerned over patent issues.

Google recently introduced a new video format, dubbed WebM, and open-sourced its technology in an effort to settle the matter. But none of the key players can agree on One or Two Formats To Rule Them All yet, so their sites are stuck supporting different video formats for non-Flash, HTML5 video.

What’s it to you?

It’s still too early to tell whether HTML5 will usurp Flash or if the technologies will eventually coexist, perhaps carving out mutual niches where they excel. After all, Flash is used for more than just cute kitten clips on YouTube. It lets designers create immersive, animated Website experiences and complex games that simply cannot be created with HTML5—at least, not yet, and likely not for a long time.

But things can move pretty quickly in the technology arena, so who knows—Adobe could demonstrate a convincing, long-term commitment to improving Flash’s performance and resource demands, or it could even open source Flash. Conversely, the W3C could finish the HTML5 spec early with an agreement on an official, non-Adobe video format or two that tips the industry’s scales in its favor.

But in the bigger picture, HTML5 could usher in an era of unprecedented accessibility for text, video, and other media on the Web. Never before have we had so many different connected devices and so much potential for sharing information and experiences across geographical, lingual, and even visual boundaries. And in the Web’s short history, the key browser makers—including Microsoft, Apple, and Mozilla—have never been this close to cementing the markup language in which the Web speaks.

A truly standard language and media format for the Web means that your friend with an iPhone, your father with a Windows PC, and your nerdy tech support guy with a Linux something or other tablet can all laugh at the Web pages and video clips you e-mail without worrying about who has what plug-ins or whether the right browser is installed.

As HTML5 matures and Adobe either fixes the fundamental problems of Flash or eventually retires the technology, the result is the same: We users are the ones who win.

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