Hypertext Mark-up Language 5 (HTML5) is a programming markup language for structuring and presenting internet content. It is the fifth revision of the HTML standard – the core internet technology originally proposed by Opera Software – and, as of May 2012, it is still under development.
Starting with the original reason behind the standard update, this article addresses the advantages, the challenges and the opportunities of HTML5. The full development of this new language will result in a multi-form tool that adapts itself to different uses, and could threaten iOS domination and disrupt the desktop, mobile, advertising, and enterprise sectors all at once. Although there is still a way to go, the promise that HTML5 could solve the long-standing problem of fragmentation is providing strong momentum to drive the transition to this new language.
I. Why HTML5?
The core aim of HTML5 is to improve the HTML language in order to more easily support the latest multimedia whilst ensuring the code remains easily readable by humans and consistently understood by computers and devices. HTML5 is intended to supersede not only HTML4, but XHTML1 and DOM Level 2 HTML as well. It is also an attempt to define a single markup language that can be written in either HTML or XHTML syntax.
HTML5 includes detailed processing models to encourage more interoperable implementations; it extends, improves and rationalizes the markup available for documents, and introduces markup and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for complex web applications. For these reasons, HTML5 is also a potential candidate for cross-platform mobile applications. Many features of HTML5 are implemented with the consideration of running on low-powered devices such as smartphones and tablets. A December 2011 report from research firm Strategy Analytics forecasted the sales of HTML5 compatible phones to top 1 billion in 2013.
The transition to HTML5 may be unusually disruptive in two ways. It could become:
- A platform for the next generation web
- A bridge between desktop and mobile which encompasses the web and the app model.
Roger McNamee and Mike Maples Jr. have pointed out that HTML5, in the long term, offers advantages against the current app model that could allow earlier market leaders to re-assert themselves. It represents a new instrument through which pre-Apple iOS market leaders can re-launch new products and promote another World Wide Web revolution.
Time to challenge iOS domination
In the decade before the iPhone, as the web took off, consumers’ primary concern was how to find content. Google capitalized on this, building a multi-billion-dollar business on their index search technology. However to a large extent it dumbed-down and commoditized web content. Developers focused heavily on SEO in order to be found high up in a single-font, blue-green-black list of text.
The focus on SEO reduced the incentive to invest in tools, so HTML4 (and Flash) remained predominant far longer than would otherwise have been the case. When Apple introduced iOS and the app model, content creators took advantage of new tools and a self-selected audience. Apple encouraged higher production values in apps, effectively favoring brands over commoditizers.
Apple’s success with iOS has left HTML4 market leaders Google, Microsoft, Facebook and many others trailing in terms of profits in the app-based device market, which now accounts for half of total connected devices. HTML5 is a new and open platform with the potential to compete successfully against the app model and offer a new lease of life for the World Wide Web.
iOS has costs
iOS may be more attractive for publishers than the HTML4 web, but there are downsides:
- No leverage from open source
- Smaller pool of developers than HTML
- Loss of control to Apple through the AppStore
- 30% Apple tax on products sold in the AppStore
- Incompatibility with desktops
These factors are material, both in terms of cost and control. They create an incentive for content creators to move at least some of their business away from iOS. HTML5 starts with a cost/control advantage, but issues with functionality remain a barrier to adoption. Early adopters – including the New York Times – believe these issues will be addressed within a year or two.
How HTML5 makes it real
HTML5’s advantage over HTML4 is the incorporation of Adobe Flash functionality into the language. This is more important than it may seem, since Flash is somewhat clunky and buggy. By doing so, HTML5 gets additional benefits, including the ability to search any pixel on the page and the ability to “appify” any pixel.
Not only will HTML5 enable new page layouts, it will allow better optimization of ads to content and users. It will also enable new “app” models, such as:
- App delivery
- E-book/Instapaper: just download content to your home screen
- Bookmark replacement: just download images, infographics, quotes to your home screen
- Layers: publishers can preload search results (bios, company information, etc.) into content so that consumers can get more info without leaving the page
- Longitudinal search: targeted search of a publisher’s past stories on a topic across time without leaving the content.
It is not ready yet (compared to Flash)
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) hopes to have HTML5 standardized and approved by 2014. For now, compared to Flash, HTML5 looks like a child prodigy who has great potential but still needs some refinement and coaching.
Flash has an install base of over 2 billion, and development efforts have cost its biggest sponsors more than $70 billion. In comparison, over $500 billion went into HTML5 from Google and Apple alone, even though it is still a couple of years away from official approval from the W3C. The latter framework is fully supported by about 200 million end points.
Performance tests also provide some interesting considerations. Flash achieves frame rates between four to ten times higher than HTML5 when handling various particle effects, at one sixth of the average CPU utilization. Google’s Flock of Geese test reveals that the native C++ based iOS client is between four to nine times faster than HTML5.
The bottom line: it’s quite easy to see that the new contender to the app throne still has a long way to go. Companies like AppMobi, the developer of a mobile-optimized jQuery alternative, are making it happen, but it may be that some of the early HTML5 buzz is not yet justified.
Important functionality, like that needed for commerce, has not yet been enabled. Even though it is not ready to replace HTML4 on wired PCs, HTML5 enables new and wonderful experiences on mobile devices. Ironically, the coolest HTML5 apps run only on Apple’s iOS (since there is no standard HTML5 for Android).
Browser and distribution fragmentation
YouTube’s Head of Mobile, Andrey Doronichev, said a problem his team encountered when first developing HTML5 technology was the different way in which mobile browsers dealt with it. He explains, “Building apps with HTML5 is its own skill, it’s harder than iOS.” “The app has to work across websites on different browsers, so browser fragmentation is an issue,” said Doronichev.
There’s also a problem of distribution. Unlike native apps developed for Android and iOS, there’s no central location where users can purchase and install HTML5 apps. “Consumers don’t get HTML5 apps as there is no single place to go for the apps.”
Just recently Facebook began rolling out its HTML5 app catalog, and Mozilla’s own HTML5 marketplace is slated to be launched later this year (2012). Google offers HTML5 apps via its Chrome Web Store, but as the title states, it’s only for the Chrome browser which is limited to the desktop and Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich.” There’s currently no single multi-platform storefront for HTML5 apps.
While it is still a couple of years away from the official standard release, let’s look at some of the existing developments surrounding HTML5.
Mozilla’s mobile browser projects improve gaming and real-time interactions
Mobile browsing is projected to account for more than half of users’ collective internet activity by 2017, up from slightly more than 7 percent today. That puts the mobile internet in line for a growth spurt reminiscent of the rapid growth of the desktop internet.
HTML5-based building tools help developers’ transition
Certainly mobile browsing is an important aspect of HTML5′s development, but it’s only a portion of the larger industry impact of this growing developer standard. When it comes to developing frameworks around HTML5 for the developer community, several companies are offering up tools that enable a DIY platform for adopting HTML5 trends. Usablenet (or other actors like Wix.com) works with some big brands to create a web and mobile presence for a cross-platform and cross-device strategy. HTML5 is the bridging factor between the many points of access a brand uses for end user interaction.
HTML5 is enabling a familiar transition into the world of mobility, carrying with it the expectations of developers and publishers that have grown accustomed to a World Wide Web revolving around a universal computing experience, helping us all readily adopt a future where multiple capabilities are not only expected but delivered.
HTML5 may be used to overcome the fragmentation issues that the industry has consistently battled. As its development continues, brands and retailers will take the chance to re-evaluate their mobile strategy to fit a cross-platform solution.
With its ability to span mobile devices and PCs, HTML5 has a place in consumer and enterprise applications through a penchant for flexible positioning and use cases. And while it’s a promising technology, its maturation depends on a variety of developments and the ongoing support and exploration of companies like Usablenet and Mozilla.