HTML5: What You Need to Know

HTML5 offers some great presentation technologies to a very wide audience, wider than any mobile app. It is a very strong contender for being the technology of choice as the publishing industry looks to alternative delivery techniques for the Kindle, iPad and over the Web. With canvas overlays, native video playback and caching capabilities for offline access, HTML5 has no major caveats. The Sports Illustrated example demonstrates some of what we can expect from publishers using HTML5 in the future.

I was recently interviewed by Kristi Hansen to explain HTML5 in a way that we can all understand:

1. What is HTML5?
It is really quite simple – HTML is a standard format or language for creating websites and HTML5 is the fifth iteration of that standard. It’s a specification published by the Web standards body, W3C, describing what features are available and how to use them. HTML5 is different from proprietary Web software such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight in that the specification is the result of contributions from many organisations, and can be implemented by anyone without having to pay for royalties or licensing fees.

2. How does it differ from earlier iterations of HTML?
The last version of HTML, HTML4, was published back in 1997 – and a lot has changed since then! HTML5 has improved the semantic capabilities of the language, so text is marked up as to its intent (header, footer, article and so on) rather than its appearance on the page, as often happened in the past. This is better when repurposing the text, for example for screen-readers and it’s easier for search engine robots and other software to understand.

HTML5 also simplifies many common tasks when building a Web page, such as including multimedia content, validating forms, caching information and capturing data such as date and time.

3. What’s in it for the average end user?
The goal is a Web that just works, without the need for particular browsers or plug-ins to enable certain functionality. To this end, having a standardised way of implementing common features means that the Web is open and accessible to all, regardless of competency. The semantic Web, in particular, is important in that it will help search engines and other services to work better, allowing content to be more readily accessible and easier to interact with.

4. What special new features should we look out for?
Of particular interest are the features that bring multimedia capabilities. HTML5 allows browsers for the first time to play video and audio content without the use of Flash or a similar plug-in. There is also a feature called Canvas, which allows designers to draw on the Web page, creating rich interactive experiences without the normal constraints that apply to laying out text in a Web page. Another little known feature allows developers to ‘ping’ or contact a tracking site when a link is clicked, something that is currently handled somewhat inefficiently by redirects.
5. What is HTML5 video and how will it impact on the ubiquitous use of Adobe Flash?
HTML5 video is essentially a standard that browsers can implement to display video on a Web page. Currently, the task of displaying video generally falls to a Flash player. With Flash, Adobe has really pushed the boundaries on displaying video on the Web, but it can’t be good for one vendor to control such an important delivery mechanism forever. Essentially, HTML5 will mean that your browser will play video natively, and you won’t have to visit Adobe to get Flash first. YouTube has for some time offered an HTML5 version of its videos, and it’s likely this approach will become commonplace as the standard matures.
6. How soon will it be in wide use?
This is the really interesting question. We will shortly be seeing new versions from all major browser vendors including Internet Explorer and Firefox, which will implement many HTML5 features. It’s likely that at least half the Web population will upgrade to these fairly quickly, thanks to automated updating in the browsers. It will take a little longer for the other half, but once these modern browsers reach 80% and above penetration, using HTML5 features will be a fairly safe bet.

It’s worth noting that Apple has put its faith firmly in HTML5 by leaving Flash off its popular iPhone and iPad devices, forcing many Web developers to find Flash alternatives sooner that they might otherwise have done

7. What are the major issues with this mark up language?
Apart from the issue of browser implementation and compatibility (which is not specific to HTML5, but has been a problem for years), there is currently some debate around the video codec for the HTML5 video feature. A codec is the software that compresses and decompresses the video you stream over the Web, and the standard has not tried to specify one in particular. There are a number of codecs competing to be the one you encode your videos in, and they differ in performance, licensing fees and vendor support. This lack of standardisation in the standard itself is creating problems for browser vendors and site developers alike.

8. Has Quirk got plans to develop sites using HTML5?
Quirk has always focused on building standards-based sites, because we believe that the goal of an Open Web is best for both our clients and their customers. HTML5 is very much in line with that goal and as such we aim to be industry leaders in adopting and promoting the new standard. We’ve done a fair amount of research and development already for some upcoming projects and the initial results are very exciting.

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