HTML5: briefing notes for journalists and analysts

by .

Your friendly neighbourhood doctors are often contacted by journalists and analysts who have questions about HTML5, usually from a consumer or business perspective. This is great, as we spend many more hours every week mutely shaking our heads while reading the ill-informed columns from journalists or analysts who haven’t contacted us.

Here are the most common questions we’re asked, with non-technical answers. Journos – you’re welcome to use these answers (a citation would be nice but isn’t required).

We’ll add new questions and answers as they are asked.

What is HTML5?

Depends what you mean. There are 3 different uses of the phrase "HTML5":

The HTML5 specification

The most accurate meaning of HTML5 is the specification that is developed by two groups, the W3C and WHATWG, together. There are different versions of the core HTML5 specification.

It is a much-needed evolution of the language that web pages are written in, and is designed for writing Web applications (dynamic interactive web pages that do something). Its predecessor, HTML4, dating from the late 1990s, was written for Web Pages (static, hyperlinked documents of text, images, forms).

Key facts:

  • It’s designed to make web pages interoperable across browsers. These days, people use multiple browsers (For example, IE at work, Safari/ Opera on their phone, Opera/ Firefox at home) and it’s stupid and annoying if a website doesn’t work everywhere.
  • All the browser manufacturers – Opera, Mozilla (Firefox), Apple (Safari), Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Google (Chrome) – are working together, along with loads of other individuals and organisations: Netflix, Adobe, IBM, HP, BBC etc.
  • It’s designed to extend the capabilities of the current web, without breaking existing web pages
  • It competes with plugins like Microsoft Silverlight and Adobe Flash (which themselves were developed to plug the holes in fossilized HTML4 standard)

HTML5 and close friends

In addition to the core HTML5 specification, the WHATWG developed other specifications such as Web Workers, Web Sockets, Web Database. These add more features useful in applications, games and the like.

(Many of these have been part of the core spec at some point, but moved out for procedural/ organisational reasons. They are all grouped together in a specification called Web Applications 1.0).

New, Exciting Web Technologies

When most non-developers (and many less-informed developers) say “HTML5” they are referring to a whole slew of technologies: Core HTML5, its friends and others entirely unrelated technologies, such as Geolocation (the ability for your browser to “know” its location), Device Orientation, Touch Events, CSS3 animations (that can replace very simple Flash animations), SVG (a way of describing graphics that look crisp and unpixellated at any screensize) and, the new kid on the block, WebGL, a port of a popular 3D graphics library to the Web that allows 3D graphics and games in the browser.

Many of these are developed by the W3C; WebGL is developed by Khronos Group.

It’s also important to note that many so-called "HTML5" demos are nothing to do with HTML5 at all; many Google Doodles, for example, use DHTML – an HTML 4 technology from the turn of the millennium.

Why has HTML5 been invented?

HTML 4 was creaking at the seams for the new breed of applications. Some things were impossible and needed plugins like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight; other things required elaborate hacks on undocumented features, which wasn’t a robust foundation for websites that make money for their owners.

How many HTML5-compliant browsers are there?

It depends on your definition. Because HTML5 extends HTML4, by definition all browsers have some HTML5 features.

If, on the other hand, you want to know which browsers include all Core HTML5 features, none of them do. They are all implementing pieces of the specification (which is 700+ pages long) but none implement all.

Disregarding all the hype, the modern versions of the browsers are all around the same level of implementation (although different browsers implement different features at different times, depending on the needs of their customers).

Who’s driving HTML5?

It began in Opera, in 2004, edited by Ian Hickson. Gradually all the other browser manufacturers joined. Hickson left Opera and joined Google, where he continues to edit the spec.

It’s fairest to say that browser manufacturers collaboratively drive the spec, with the W3C and many other organisations and individuals. Ultimately, it’s driven by the needs of Web developers.

Who’s using HTML5?

Lots of people – not just tech companies: Boston Globe Newspaper; Nationwide Building Society, and hundreds more. showcases many HTML5 sites.

When will HTML5 be ready?

Perhaps 2012. Perhaps 2022. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that a lot of it is implemented in browsers now, so it can be used now.

Saying that we can’t use HTML5 because it isn’t finished is like saying we can’t speak English because it isn’t finished.

Is HTML5 incompatible with Internet Explorer?

Nope. IE9 has good support. Support for some APIs can be patched into older browsers with a technique called polyfilling with JavaScript, or with plugins like Flash and Silverlight. Support for <canvas> can be faked in IE<9. It’s generally the slow JavaScript engines in older browsers that cause problems. Video content can use a Flash fallback in older versions of all browsers.

It’s worth noting that many of the features in HTML5 (like contenteditable, the Drag and Drop API) were invented by Microsoft and were included in IE5.

Is HTML5 just about mobile?

Absolutely not. Behind HTML5 are some Design Principles, one of which states that it’s about universal access:

Features should be designed for universal access…Features should, when possible, work across different platforms, devices, and media.

That said, there are several features that are useful on Mobile. If you’re looking at "real" HTML5, then the ability to continue to interact with a website even when offline via Application Cache (“Appcache”) is a useful one.

The fact that you can use HTML5 <canvas> for animations on devices that, by choice or necessity, can’t use Adobe Flash can be advantageous.

In the broader "New Exciting Web Techologies" definition of HTML5, Geolocation is a huge feature.

Will HTML5 kill Adobe Flash?

No – or we hope not. For years Flash was the only way to add video to a page; now there is HTML5. This competition means both are getting better, which is great for developers.

Apple decided not to allow Flash on their iOS devices, which is what gave HTML5 video a great boost. It’s important to note that HTML5 multimedia on iOS is hardly a perfect platform:

For video that uses adaptive bit-rate streaming, or Digital Rights Management (DRM), Flash remains a useful cross-browser tool.

It’s also necessary to realise that Flash does more than simply video. Some its basic functions like simple gaming have been usurped by HTML5 <canvas>, and the kind of trivial animations that it used to be used for (things spinning on hover, for example) are moved into CSS 3. However, for ease of authoring sophisticated animated content like games and cartoons, it’s much easier for authors to write in Flash as Adobe’s authoring environment has many tools (tweening, timelines) that make it easy for visual developers. This will change as companies develop pleasant authoring environments for <canvas>, but it isn’t there yet.

(Adobe recently released a preview of a timeline-driven authoring environment for non-Flash animations called . Ignore its claims to be "HTML5"; in its current early incarnation, it’s simply flying HTML 4<div>s around with JavaScript.)

Will HTML5 kill mobile Apps?

HTML5 (in the broadest sense of "New Exciting Web Technologies") significantly enhance the capabilities of the Web. Two years ago, to access the Global Positioning System on the phone, you had to write a native app in C++ or Java or.NET or Objective C depending on platform. If you wanted to target all platforms, you write the same app multiple times. Now, you can access Geolocation data from JavaScript on every platform (and on laptops too!), by the user visiting a URL rather than downloading an app.

Open web technologies are providing access to the device’s camera and orientation, the system contact book, peer-to-peer in-browser video conferencing, the devices’ file system, and many more. JavaScript engines are becoming almost as fast as native code, so the technical niche for native applications on high-end smartphones still exists, but is becoming smaller. On less sophisticated devices that can’t run fast JavaScript or a full web browser, native apps are still an important product.

There are non-technical reasons for apps, too. Operators like them very much: they can control distribution and therefore extract money from both purchasers and vendors. Whereas many people dislike the idea of a monolithic appstore and app approval process, some consumers value it. Appstores offer curation – consumers feel that the apps are vetted and therefore won’t wreck their phones, steal their identities or (shudder) expose them to Internet smut.

Apps built for one specific device can be highly integrated with the User Interface and User Experience conventions of that device. Some people see this as a compelling advantage. However, uptake of the Web doesn’t seem to have suffered because authors make one single website rather than different websites for Linux, Mac and Windows.

Any further questions?

If you have any further questions, you can ask the doctor, or analysts/ accredited journalists can ask your author for a briefing.

16 Responses on the article “HTML5: briefing notes for journalists and analysts”

  • Tim says:

    “All the browser manufacturers – Opera, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome – are working together (along with loads of other individuals and organisations: Netflix, Adobe, IBM, HP, BBC etc etc)”

    Sorry Bruce, maybe I’m being a pedantic, but if we want journos/analysts to “get it right”, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome are not browser manufacturers.

  • Bruce Lawson says:

    Tim – good point. I wondered about this as I was writing. Have amended to accuratify it.

  • Danyal says:

    Tough crowd. Nice article Doctor.

  • I think it’s worth mentioning that the main factor holding back instant widespread adoption of HTML standards are older versions of Internet Explorer.

    “How can I tell if it’s HTML5, doctor?”
    “Does it run on IE8?”
    “That’s HTML5.”

  • Bruce Lawson says:

    Kent, added a section about IE

  • DJ says:

    Good idea Bruce… a sort of an ex-officio “press packet” for journalists; but, undoubtedly useful for “newbie” orientation as well and even “talking points” so developers can sound smart at parties.

    To the end that its primary purpose is directed toward journalists you may want to watch your balance of word usage such as: “as” versus “because,” “that” versus “which,” and double nested “such as” — just a thought.

    I do however appreciate your “voice of reason,” however much it seems like “crying in the wilderness,” over the MS/IE perspective. I hold no continued love, for example, over the current limitations of IE6; but, it’s a bit tiresome, and currently unnecessary, for all the angst and tirade. MS “filters” have given us many of the functionalities which “bashers” rant are not there – some for many years. More difficult to use — yes; but, only more obscure because one chooses to not learn them.

    It is abundantly clear, to anyone with their eyes open, that MS, the organization, has currently instituted a “make up” program for enhancing IE — with corporate agendas on the scale of magnitude that only MS could initiate. Appropriate for them to do – of course, consistent with the market-place – yes, a welcome undertaking – you bet, and perhaps in some measure due to all the flailing about with sticks developers have done over the recent years. None-the-less, it’s happening and childishly inappropriate to sulk that it’s not immediate or didn’t happen sooner.

    Now that the team seems to be pulling in the same direction, perhaps is it time to turn our whips to address other idiocies, such as: letting go of proprietary vendor prefixes. When all browsers have implemented a function – there is no need for them (as if there ever was). And personally, I don’t want to see Firefox or Google get so caught up in trying to maintain their assumed “lead” over IE that they neglect fixing the many “bugs” or antiquated implementations in their own systems. When one is miserating about the past we should also remember that our browsers are FREE pretty much because of ONE entity – MS-IE, who made it so by integrating it into their operating system then successfully defending their position over significant opposition. Just sayin’.

  • Bruce Lawson says:

    Thanks DJ.

    I’ve assumed the journalists will be able to process “as” versus “because,” and “that” versus “which” so let them be, but fixed the nested “such as” constructions.

  • Justin says:

    Good article Dr Bruce, although when I clicked on the link I thought this was going to be an article about how journalists and analysts can take advantage of HTML5 semantics and “New Exciting Web Technologies” to convey their message.

    *heads off to write*

  • Louis says:

    Good stuff here, Bruce. One small error:

    The new section you added on IE, the heading says:

    “Is HTML5 is incompatible with Internet Explorer?”

    You’ve doubled the word “is”. :)

  • Jack Osborne says:

    @Louis good spot, that should be it fixed.

  • DJ says:

    Bruce… I see that there isn’t a method to “thread” a previous comment but I felt I needed to follow up. Thanks for your attention however I hope you could tell that I wasn’t suggesting a re-write merely making a constructive observation. If given the choice, I would probably never use the word “because” I guess; and, truth be told I’ve been known to fill a single sentence with multiple “that’s” and not one “which” in sight. Where it comes from, who can tell. Euridite teachers of my youth perhaps. I have, however, had the occasion to be hounded by editors about such issues and I guess I must have just wanted to “share the love.”

    Keep it up. We enjoy all your collective efforts — in fact, for my tastes, the posts are a bit too infrequent!

  • Paul says:

    Thanks Bruce much appreciated,

    My WordStar7 word processor, back in the day, used to have a mighty fine grammar checker built in.

    Now I can see that all I have to do is post my draft articles here and they will be auto-grammar-corrected. Isn’t the Cloud just amazing!


  • V Sridhar says:

    Quite a good take on the various elements that come up in the HTML5 debate.

    I would suggest including a few more sections. Not all of it seems relevant for a Journalist Kit – but it still covers aspects that come up in the HTML5 debate.

    1. The Video and Audio Codec Debate – H262, Ogg Vorbis, V8. MPEG-LA and the patent wars, commercials.

    2. The Mobile Side has two areas that can be detailed
    * The AppStore Debate. The article has a brief on curated appstores. However this is now becoming a huge commercial argument for the various parties involved. This can get elaborated.
    * Native Applications vs HTML5 applications for Mobile. More can get added – esp. languages used in native development, mechanisms of hosting applications, code multiple times, form factors etc.

    3. The Flash / Plugin Side can be enhanced for
    * The Story around Silverlight
    * The Metro UI and plugin debate
    * Building Web Applications that are not just 2-3 forms still is better done with a plug-in that supports rich libraries

    4. The Client Side Development Area
    * .NET Redist
    * JRE Redist
    * Adobe AIR Redist

    All of these do not “disappear” with HTML5. A lot still is quite relevant.

    5. The JS Library world – JQuery and the like. What the JS library brings on board and what it offers developers.

  • William says:

    Very nice article and Kudos to you for amending it as per the above comments. Anytime there’e an HTML5 discussion I like to see it.

  • Mark Excell says:

    HTML5 is a bit of a double edged device. It along with the news areas of CSS gives the promise of a raft of new abilities, but this is also the issue with the new version. In short until all browsers support HTML5 or people stop using older browsers, it means as a web designer you either end up coding for multiple technologies or only using a subset of the available features. A good example of this is .PNG and web font support. In each case the benefits of each format is well known but to ensure websites who use these features can still be seen on older versions of browsers, hacks and work arounds still need to be used. Often this means we just don’t use them. Three cheers for HTML5 when we can actually use it for day to day work…

  • With every new version, we’ll always be coding for older browsers. Just simple things like gradients still need to coded for the various implementations.

    Then add in the additional work needed in the stylesheet to accommodate different screen sizes (unless you build a completely separate mobile version) and web designers now have more to contend with than before.

    It’s a double-edged sword because of course things are now possible that weren’t before, but that’s like most things in life isn’t it?

    Good article though… :-)

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