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An Overview of HTML Version 5

By Heather Brautman

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Background    Link to contents

There's no documentation on whether Al Gore claims to have invented HTML along with the internet, but even from the early days, "WWW" and "HTML" went together hand in hand. Like mullets, rockabilly music, and Tab, what's old is new again. With a new version (HTML 5), the subject of an endless number of spec pages, discussion boards, forums and strategy meetings, HTML remains at the forefront of developing. The new version comes with a slew of new <tags> (and lost a few along the way) but developers who have already dug into the language worry if it will be able to live up to the <hype> and whether, because of browser in-fighting, it'll ever be adopted for general use.

What's New    Link to contents

Like seeing presents piled under a tree, you're probably curious to rip off the marketing spiel and see what you're getting with HTML 5. Without drowning in detail (see the resources section for that), a brief overview:

  • Page Structure: Anyone who struggled with <table>, <table row>, and <table column> just to separate sections of a web page knows how one wrong calculation can send the page spinning off into uglytown. Trying to create a navigation bar in (old) HTML could be frustrating and cause errors if the page structure altered. HTML 5 boasts regulation of all of these page areas, with new tags for the <header>, <footer>, <figure> (caption under an image), and <aside>. The new <aside> tag is a way to provide additional content about the current information. For example, if the web site refers to Maine Coon cats, the <aside> tag might contain the sentence, "Maine Coon cats first lived on sailboats, performing as mousers for the ship's crew, though today they are known as gentle giants; the large, fluffy felines can grow up to 26 pounds." The following image shows some of these additions in action, taken from Spicy Web Design's helpful discussion, HTML 5 Tutorial - A Simple Web Page LayoutExternal link, (tags added):

  • Page Navigation: HTML 5 promises more robust page building and exploration opportunities for visitors. Two tags work together to achieve this: the new
  • The A/V Club: Where previously code had to be written to direct the system to a Flash or WAV file with plug-ins and QuickTime/RealPlayer, two new HTML 5 tags make adding <video> and <audio> simple to the page. The media is embedded right into the page.
  • Drag-and-Drop: Functionality has been implemented with a number of <drag> tags to allow this feature but it has been getting negative reviews (see below).

What's Gone    Link to contents

HTML 5 axed a few old familiars in its new format. Some frivolous, some to take special notice of:

  • Links no longer require the <href> tag. This was implemented so HTML 5 could be used in web apps and scripts.
  • Frames: Tags relating to frames (<noframes>, <frame>, <frameset>) have been removed from HTML 5. You may not have used these for quite some time, but keep a heads up in case you decide to port over some old code.

What's Not Working    Link to contents

Although the excitement of circumventing plug-ins is attractive, it is important to understand that currently, HTML 5 stands pretty much alone (though it is recruiting friends, see below). Internet Explorer cannot support it except when using ChromeFrame (although most IE users have an Adobe Flash plug-in), so technically, a plug-in is still being used. Programmers will still have to create different versions of the video/audio code to go across all the browsers and containers.

Early testers have cited HTML 5's drag-and-drop feature as "so outrageously bad" that browsers should "disable it at their earliest opportunity" [Peter-Paul Koch, "The HTML 5 Drag and Drop Disaster"]. The tags required for the functionality are apparently misleading and do not work as explained. One tester felt that there were entirely too many <drag> tags/events required and that it mimicked the present <mouse> events.

HTML 5 and Friends    Link to contents

Since HTML 5 has been around for a few years, who's been kicking it around? Well, it's made one pretty important friend, Google, who implemented it into their Gmail system. HTML 5 has helped Gmail actually function without an internet connection, using a local database and performing much faster, although not in actual implementation at this time. Fans of the Droid (Android) and the iPhone may feel assured that the HTML 5-powered Gmail also successfully operated on those electronics.

Another pal on HTML 5's buddy list is YouTube, who on January 21, 2010, broke out with an HTML 5-enabled player for the site's videos. It's still in testing and has limitations (no videos with ads - which isn't such a bad thing; and the browser must be configured with the <video> tag, which probably eliminates almost all of their potential audience right now).

Also on the list of HTML 5 supporters is Opera, which just recently added support for HTML 5's <video> tag but has had other HTML elements such as <embed> for a few releases now.

Along the way, HTML 5 has picked up Chrome, the aforementioned ChromeFrame, and Safari (which supports the A/V tags), too.

An immediate concern when any new language is vowing to take over the electronic world is what effect it will have current functionality. Web users can breathe a bit easier because HTML 5 is built to be backwards compatible. This means that when a user opens any one of these browsers in HTML 5, that browser can handle web pages built in HTML 4 or earlier with no visible disarray (changed fonts, skewed columns, missing headers).

And One Enemy?    Link to contents

Could HTML 5 be gunning for Flash? Bloggers at Adobe's The Flash Blog say no; HTML 5 is "an exciting development" that they plan to support with their own developed tools. While the writer says that HTML 5 looks "promising" and commits to using it if it is implemented, he cautions that Flash will also evolve over time and users should not forget its other purposes; plus Flash will continue to be universal - applicable on every browser without extra <video> tags and markup. Flash fans don't need to despair yet (or anytime in the foreseeable future); a Google executive quoted in the United Kingdom's The Register had this bleak outlook about HTML 5's superseding Flash: After an "inordinate amount of discussion," he had given up trying to find a common ground between the major browsers. His conclusion was that there was "no suitable code all vendors are willing to implement and ship." Further, not everyone at Adobe is looking so partisanly at HTML 5. Adobe's Chief Technical Officer, Kevin Lynch, claims that although "Adobe supports HTML," HTML does not "reliably do everything Flash does." He too cites the browsers' inability to coagulate on a spec, but is he striking out to possibly damage HTML 5's reputation ahead of time? According to Lynch, 75% of current video-on-the-web (and on 98% of computers) is shown in Flash. With major push from HTML's "friends" like Google and Chrome, perhaps Lynch is worrying he'll see a major downturn in those numbers.

In fact, Lynch's worries may be more than just a protective father fretting over his babies fighting for worms in the nest. In a New York Times article titled, "iPad Can't Play Flash Video, but it May Not Matter," writer Nick Bilton explains how the initial panic over a Flash-less device quickly settled into a "so what" mentality. Apple, who has come out against Flash's cumbrance and virus vulnerability, still installs the product on their computers but drew the line at their newest i-product. It's also public knowledge that HTML 5's patents are held by a number of companies; surprise, Apple is one of them.

HTML 5 and the Future    Link to contents

As HTML 5 (very) slowly invades the most popular way people communicate today (cell phones, online streaming video), it seems poised to take back its 90s prevalence. Like any new software, it may have bugs and downfalls in the beginning as it works out its testing kinks. Developers should see that as a way to dive in and shape the product to their requirements. There's no prediction on whether or when HTML 5 will become *the* way to code or when that will be. Whether it will supersede Java or obliterate the need for plug-ins. Or if the browsers can recognize any common ground and leave their snipes at the door; finding a way to create specifications they all can agree to could be the only way HTML 5 is able to be implemented.

The W3C Working Group, tasked with creating the unimaginable specification document for HTML 5, has as its milestone that June 2010 will see proposed recommendation for the spec and full recommendation coming September 2010. Then again, most people know not to expect things in a timely fashion; the milestone for the HTML 5 Last Call Working Draft had been due in March 2009 with an actual completion date of October 2009. Still, seven months late is nothing, considering the HTML 5 spec was adopted for review in May of 2007.

In the meantime, programmers can stick a <toe> in the water and wait for more information or jump in and start working, getting <ahead> of the game.

Reading List    Link to contents

Heather BrautmanHeather Brautman is a trained technical writer and freelancer. She has a Masters of Science in Technical Communication from North Carolina State University and a Masters of Arts in PR/Communication Management from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. She is a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication and was awarded their Sigma Tau Chi status in 2006. When she is not writing, she enjoys reading, cruise ships and chasing her cat, Solo. She can be reached at heatherandsolo at att [dot] com.


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