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5 things you need to know about HTML5

HTML5: It’s fast becoming one of those industry buzzwords — like “Web 2.0” was in 2005 and “Social Media” is at the moment. And just like those two phrases, many people talk about HTML5 but few of them have a clear idea of what it means. Buzzword or not, it’s important to understand the ins and outs of the new standard.

But don’t just take my word for it. Bob Muglia, the head of Microsoft’s Server and Tools division, recently said “HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform.” Since Microsoft has been ignoring the standard for years, this signals a huge shift in its position.

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So what’s all the hype about?

1. It’s the new standard for the web
As the name implies, HTML5 is just the latest version of the language that underpins every single page on the web: Hypertext Markup Language. The previous version, HTML4.1, is supported by over 99% of the world’s browsers.

You will hear geeks debate PHP versus Ruby or wax lyrical about Python’s sexy Django framework. You may hear them express a love for Java or a hatred of .NET, but in the end all of these “back-end” languages rely on the same thing to actually present you with their content and functionality on the web: HTML. Even the two obvious exceptions, Flash and Silverlight, must be embedded in HMTL before they are accessible on the web.

Happily a huge bulk of HTML5 is identical to version 4.1, so you won’t have to fire your poor, hard working web designer and hire an overpriced HTML5 expert. She will need to learn a few new tricks, but the essentials of HTML are still very much intact.

Be warned though, some outdated tags (“deprecated” in geek speak) have been entirely removed from the standard, meaning that future browsers will completely ignore them. That includes some old favourites like <frame>, <font> and <center>, so make sure you scrub them out of your site earlier rather than later.

2. It integrates video, sound, animations and more
Until HTML5 came along, a lot of the coolest features — things like video and animations — relied on external “plugins” to handle the work the browser could not. Adobe’s Flash is perhaps the most famous and well-supported plugin, but there are literally thousands of others, including Microsoft’s Silverlight, Apple’s Quicktime and Java’s applets.

What HTML5 does is make a lot of these features “native” — the browser simply handles them on its own. Some of the most exciting new features include:

  • Video, audio and animations
  • The ability for readers to edit a page’s content
  • Built-in progress indicators, image captioning and form validation
  • The ability to drag and drop items within a page *
  • Offline storage of data *
  • Geolocation (using IP address) * – the browser can literally figure out where in the world you are

Why go to all this trouble when plugins do the job already? Because those technologies force both the users and the site developers to rely on yet more software with yet more quirks and yet more constant updates. For novice users, already freaked out by being on the World Wide Interwebs, the last thing they need is yet more technical hoops to jump through.

(*Not everything lumped in with HTML5 – the buzzword – is strictly part of HTML5 – the standard. The features marked with asterisks above belong to separate but related standards, like CSS3, but are often called HTML5 for convenience of reference.)

3. It isn’t universally supported (yet)…
As is often the case with the latest and greatest standard, only the cool kids are currently on the bandwagon. At the moment that includes:

  • Firefox (version 3.5 and up)
  • Google Chrome
  • Apple’s Safari (version 4)

None of these browsers use every one of HTML5’s features yet, but they all support over 75% of them. Opera (version 10) has very limited support and Internet Explorer (versions 7 and 8 ) almost no support at all. And it goes without saying that IE6 supports not one single HTML5 tag.

So if even a small majority of your users are on Internet Explorer, regardless of the version, then HTML5 really isn’t a good idea — at least not for anything vital like page structure or “how to” videos. And given that roughly 60% of the internet users on the planet use IE in some form or another, it’s not a trivial decision.

4. …but it will be soon enough
When Microsoft capitulated in September and began supporting HTML5 in its latest browser (Internet Explorer 9 – currently in early beta), that signaled the beginning of the end of the older standards. Microsoft was literally the last major browser player not explicitly backing HTML5, so its universal application is now just a matter of time.

How long before HTML5 is fully mainstream? It’s difficult to tell precisely, and given that millions of people are still using Internet Explorer version 6 – now over nine years old – we will probably have to suffer at least another five years of dual support.

5. It’s not going to kill Flash (yet)
Given how many of HTML5’s features duplicate those currently supplied by Adobe’s ubiquitous Flash plugin, many people are excitedly proclaiming its imminent death. Steve Jobs’ famous spat with Adobe over support for Flash on Apple’s mobile devices only added fuel to this fire. The same people also see Microsoft’s acceptance of HTML5 as a tacit admission that Silverlight, Microsoft’s answer to Flash, has failed.

I disagree on both counts. Both Flash and Silverlight will have an important place in the web for decades to come. While HTML5 wrestles back features like video and audio, its current animation capabilities remain too crude and time consuming to compete with the likes of Flash.

That said, Flash is going to have to work hard to remain relevant. Now that it isn’t needed for video (YouTube already supports HTML5), it needs the kind of sexy new features that will keep it installed on 98% of the world’s computers. And it needs them fast.

Want some more detail?
Here are some handy HTML5 references to get you up to speed in no time:

Browser support for CSS3 and HTML5

28 HTML5 Features, Tips, and Techniques you Must Know

HTML5 differences from HTML4

A Collection of HTML5 Resources and Tutorials

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