Why is HTML Suddenly Interesting?

Web developers couldn’t stop talking about HTML and its evolution during the 1990s. New features were usually tempting, though not always workable, and the Browser Wars meant that vendors competed by providing and copying features. The HTML standardization process had its twists and turns, moving from the IETF to the W3C, developing standards that reflected immediate needs and tried to channel developer energy in more productive directions.

Then, suddenly, HTML was incredibly boring. The dot-com bust was part of that, but a more fundamental change doomed the conversation: Microsoft dominated the space. Whether because of the dominance of Windows, the technical quality of key innovations like Dynamic HTML, or the disappearance of Netscape into AOL, the stark reality was that Internet Explorer ruled the browser world. Outsiders asking Microsoft for improvements to Internet Explorer invariably heard that Microsoft would be willing to upgrade IE “when our customers ask for it” – which was an almost polite version of no.

As a result, the last decade, even for those of us who turned to Mozilla, Opera, Safari, Chrome, or other browsers, has been one long exercise in making the most out of tools that took their last major steps in the late 1990s. There was enough in HTML 4.01, Cascading Style Sheets 2, JavaScript, XML, HTTP, and XMLHttpRequest to keep us busy, especially as users acquired higher-speed connections and faster computers. There was also constant frustration with browser limitations, driving the development of more flexible plugin approaches like Flash and Silverlight, though none of them succeeded in replacing the traditional Web, however dull it might have become.

Today, though, the HTML conversation is reborn. Standards development around HTML seems to actually have a chance of influencing user experience in the browser, and Microsoft itself is participating in the HTML 5 conversation despite still holding roughly two-thirds of the browser market. While Microsoft’s market share is only slowly eroding, developer mindshare seems to have shifted decisively to the band of WHATWG upstarts, Microsoft’s competitors.

The reason for this, I think, is that HTML 5 clearly has a bright future in a place that Microsoft can’t presently block: mobile web browsers. When I ask people about the future of computing, the word I keep hearing in their answers is “mobile“. Even if it’s small now, it has a much greater effect on how people evaluate what’s coming.

Microsoft has a mobile presence, certainly, but it’s hard to argue that it has anywhere near the visibility of the iPhone, or even the Android. Mobile web browsing has kept Opera going for years, but the iPhone and Android give Apple and Google much more visibility for their HTML 5 work, and Apple’s decision to keep Flash off the iPhone in particular gave developers further cause to rethink their dependencies. (The WebKit browser engine these share will also be integrated with Blackberry soon, and is also on the Palm Pre.)

In the mad rush to build mobile applications, HTML 5’s competition isn’t even desktop web browsers, but other mobile development toolkits. As my co-worker Keith Fahlgren put it recently:

Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had a lot more fun writing an HTML5 application based on CSS3, the database API, and jQuery that runs out of the box on all of the hot mobile platforms than I ever would have had writing some silly Objective C app for a locked down App Store (or Java for an open one).

This creates a whole new world for the “where should HTML go?” conversation. Web developers certainly have pent-up demand for new features, but previous conversations about revising HTML always foundered on the “but will Internet Explorer support it?” question. Today, when that question feels less important, the ice is finally breaking. (Microsoft is even participating in HTML 5, though it’s not yet clear how committed they are to implementation.)

It will doubtless be years before developers can safely deploy fully-featured HTML 5 sites without concern for older browsers, but for the first time it is plausible that changes to HTML will find wide adoption, and hope is rising. That hope, of course, brings its own risks. I can’t say the HTML 5 process has done credit to either the W3C or the WHATWG – it feels to me like an ugly scramble – and there are plenty of specific decisions that deserve careful questioning. That the broken process is actually important to people, however, is a huge sign in itself that HTML is relevant once again.

After years of quiet, it’s worth paying attention again!

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