HTML 5: Less than it's cracked up to be

The core idea behind HTML 5, the latest proposed version of the Web's foundation markup language, is to make all resources, not just text and links, widely and uniformly usable across all platforms.

The core idea behind HTML 5, the latest proposed version of the Web's foundation markup language, is to make all resources, not just text and links, widely and uniformly usable across all platforms. Well, that was the theory. In practice, things aren't going to change that much from today's Web, with its reliance on proprietary media formats and methods.

In the 20 years since HTML appeared, companies -- including Adobe with Flash, Microsoft with Silverlight and Apple with QuickTime -- have added their own proprietary media formats to the Web. In addition, other businesses -- such as Google with Gears and Oracle /Sun with JavaFX -- have created technologies for the Web that make it possible to create offline and user-side-based Web applications. This is all fine, but these proprietary formats and application platforms get in the way of the universal use vision for the Web.

The W3C's (World Wide Web Consortium) plan was to answer these proprietary approaches with HTML 5. This open standard, yet to be fully approved, takes HTML from simply describing the basics of a text-based Web to one that includes specifications for presenting animations, audio, mathematical equations, offline storage and applications, typefaces and video. In short, HTML 5 is meant to incorporate all the functionality that Web users now expect from proprietary add-ons.

As Ian Hickson, one of the editors of the HTML 5 standard, has said , "One of HTML 5's goals is to move the Web away from proprietary technologies such as Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX." At the same time, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee , the founder of the Web and director of the W3C, "Yes, HTML 5 is still a markup language for Web pages, but the really big shift that's happening here -- and, you could argue, what's actually driving the fancy features -- is the shift to the web becoming a client-side computing platform." As for each of the multiple elements that are now being incorporated into HTML 5, Berners-Lee continued, "We've had the pieces for a while," and bringing them together in HTML 5 "multiplies the power of each one."

Sounds great, doesn't it? But HTML 5 is years away from becoming a real standard. Indeed, Dave Story, Adobe's vice president of developer tools, has pointed out that "the HTML 5 time-line states that it will be at least a decade before the evolving HTML 5/CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) 3 efforts are finalized, and it remains to be seen what parts will be implemented consistently across all browsers. In the meantime, the Flash platform will continue to deliver a ubiquitous, consistent platform that enables ever richer, more engaging user experiences."

And, even when HTML 5 does kick in, so what? Take the newly approved HTML 5 draft's codec-neutral video tag . In theory, this will make it easier to embed multimedia content in Web pages. In practice, it's not so easy. That's because HTML 5 doesn't spell out which codec should be supported by the video tag.

So, for example, YouTube and Vimeo are already supporting the HTML 5 video tag with the H.264 video codec. But, while H.264 isn't a proprietary codec in the same way that Adobe Flash is, it does come encumbered by patents.

The same is true with other potential codecs. Even the open-source favorite Ogg Theoraisn't completely clear of patent issues . In any case, though, the problem of a universal Web video format standard is simply being shifted from the HTML standard to where it already lies : the Web browser creators. In other words, we're just stuck with the same-old, same-old when it comes to Internet video.

It's not just video, though. HTML 5 will also include several features that address building Web applications that work while offline. These will include support for a client-side SQL database and offline application and data caching. Again, that sounds great. But while Google, for example, is switching its Google Gears offline functionality to HTML 5's approach, it isn't stopping with just that. Instead, as former Google open Web advocate Dion Almaer said , "Gears is always going to be a superset of HTML 5." And, of course, as a superset, that means that even if a browser did support all of HTML 5, it still might not work with a Google Gears-based offline application.

Get the idea? Sure, everyone is in favor of HTML 5, but the devil is in the details. For the foreseeable future, the Web is going to stay the way it is now: a mix of open standards with the most interesting parts locked away by exclusive or proprietary formats or methods.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com .

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