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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  • HereAndNow

    With RIM’s acquisition of Torch Mobile, all of the “native” browsers of all of the major smartphone OSes (iPhone, Android, WebOS, Symbian & Blackberry) will be WebKit-based (WinMo is the exception, but a 3rd-party WebKit browser can be installed).

    This will make it easy for developers, to create web sites & applications that:

    1. render consistently on all smartphones.

    2. utilize HTML5.

    There are already a couple thousand web apps for the iPhone. They can be found here:
    http://www.apple.com/webapps/

    Presumably, these apps do/will soon run unmodified on all of the other smartphone platforms.

  • http://thomasjbradley.ca Thomas J Bradley

    Having a consistent rendering engine among mobile phones is very exciting.

    We can only hope that the Javascript engines among the phones are also consistent. If all the phones use SquirrelFish great, otherwise I would be worried about Javascript issues also.

    Chrome doesn’t use SquirrelFish, but instead uses V8 and hopefully there isn’t great fragmentation in the mobile world also.

  • Mike L

    I agree that HTML 5 is interesting. But it always comes down to working with the common denominator of functionality across all browsers you want to support. I think the boom of mobile is great, but that just means more clients. Let’s try and get CSS 2 working across all major browsers before we get too excited.

  • http://www.sarwarfaruque.com Sarwar Faruque

    HTML5 and CSS3 are obviously the biggest movers in interest for web developers. Its necessary for all browsers to come to a level of agreement allowing them to render websites all in the same manner.

    And as you mentioned, mobile is the next big thing. Everything from accessing the internet via your phone to netbooks are driving the focus towards mobility of the internet.

  • http://hocteto.com nunes

    Maybe we should start to think of HTML 5 not only as a browser language but also as a desktop language or as a full development platform.

    And I think that a better Desktop(or Mobile Desktop) api should be designed in order to allow the development of actual applications with HTML5.

    Maybe Chrome OS ships with this kind of desktop integration or maybe efforts like Prism and their HostUI object can turn into a common api for different browsers.

  • http://www.frontrowcrew.com Apreche

    The reason HTML is suddenly exciting is very simple.

    As soon as the web was popularized, HTML became necessary. However, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript were frustrating, painful, and limited.

    Thus, developers concentrated with the more interesting things they could do on the server side. More recently developers started to reach the limits with what they could achieve on the server side. The only way to move the web forward was to actually improve HTML, JavaScript, etc.

    Web technology was stagnant, and the limiting factor were the client-side browser technologies. Left with no alternatives, and thanks to real browser competition, developers were finally able to push to get these things improved.

  • http://www.truckingtruth.com Brett

    yaaaaaaawwwwwnnnnnn……

    Look, lets get real. For a decent web developer, it’s simple enough to implement multiple data sources (multiple API’s) into one mashup and make them work together. It’s easy enough to move complex objects and arrays between programming languages that do not natively work together (javascript and PhP), manipulate the data, store, send, and retrieve it using a database, and dynamically load real-time data from a multitude of platforms – it’s not that bad. Figuring out how to actually display any of it in a way that is pleasant and interesting and works across all browsers fairly consistently – nearly impossible.

    The thought of “where we’re going” is good fodder for a free moment in your day, but pointless in the reality of implementing any of it. A huge portion of the web universe will be using old, cr*ppy browsers for many, many years to come.

    You can come up with all of the utopian ideals, standards-based visions, and richly advanced architectures you like – but will we ever see the day that we can actually implement 10% of what we should be able to? I’d love to believe so, I see no evidence of a catalyst for making it anytime anytime soon though.

    Today I read that facebook is no longer using rounded corners. While they thinly disguised it as a UI choice, they made it clear enough why they really did it by hinting to MS for border-radius support, and web developers know why – because no matter what method you use, it’s almost impossible to get it to work consistently across browsers.

    Rounded corners. WE CANT EVEN GET ROUNDED CORNERS TO WORK AND IT’S MID 2009!!!!

    I’m just sick to death of the browser rendering issues – absolutely sick – what a cruel joke.

  • http://www.right-hand-drive-jeep.com Ajeet

    @Brett, your reference to rounded corners is ominous of how little technology has progressed in some areas. As is expected in a rapid march, some aspects get left behind. Later it is those aspects that have to catch up. Hence the (re)interest in HTML.

  • http://adnansiddiqi.com Adnan Siddiqi

    Browsers like Opera Mini and Nokia’s “default” web browser in E series models like E50 are still not supporting HTML5

  • bowerbird

    the reason html is interesting again is simple:
    people finally called b.s. on all the x.m.l. hype.

    and the people who actually move us forward
    – the programmers — regained their priority
    over the format wonks who only stall us out…

    of course, all of this is also confounded with
    corporate money and the usual political b.s.

    -bowerbird

  • http://my.opera.com/jax Jonny Axelsson

    @HereAndNow: The mobile market is split between Opera and WebKit-based browsers. Opera is blocked from the iPhone, but is otherwise on all major phones as well, including Windows Mobile.

    @Adnan: It is true that WebKit and Opera don’t support HTML5 in the real sense of “all of it”, and neither does Mozilla, then again in the same real sense HTML5 doesn’t exist yet. Worse, the subsets of HTML5 supported by WebKit, Opera, and Mozilla are different. The good news is that the part of HTML consistently supported by all of the three, even juryrigged IE, is growing fast.

    Having browsed the Web on a variety of phones for eight years now, IE for PCs has not been the only browser holding people back and can’t compare with the horror that has been phone browsers. The NetFront browser may be really bad, but it is way ahead of the other phone-origin browsers and “browsers”. Today it is possible to design a web site, never mind a web app, that would work on most phones in the world, if you can ignore an ever-diminishing share of should-never-have-beens.

  • http://twitter.com/maboa maboa

    I must admit I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the mobile market moving HTML 5 forward. This can only be a good thing, especially if Microsoft take part. What sense would it make for Microsoft to implement HTML 5 on their mobile browsers and not their desktop browsers?

    Having said that – I’m not holding my breath. I think it’s more likely that the development community will start ‘patching’ non-compliant browsers and wrote an article a couple of days back suggesting just that : http://happyworm.com/blog/2009/08/24/html-5-the-revolution-will-not-be-televised/ It’s amazing what progress has been made already.

  • http://www.mimor.be Mimor

    I guess each one has its own reason to be happily awaiting HTML 5.
    But keep in mind, the biggest party-pooper can be Microsoft. If they go do their own stuff… all the others will be where they left.

  • Matt

    HTML 5 is all hype. Need proof? IE 7 will continue to have large market share for at least another 5-10 years.

  • http://www.mdavidgreen.com/ M. David Green

    While some of us never lost interest, the mobile market may be making more folks think again about the power and potential of HTML. It’s always the least powerful platforms that drive the most innovative technological achievements. Remember the miraculous sounds those SID chip programmers managed to get out of the Commodore 64? How about the first time you saw video streaming over a 9600 BAUD modem, or the earliest 3D video games with smooth scrolling background graphics? Now we’re shucking those awkward IDE’s that separated us from our code, and flirting again with advanced HTML techniques to simulate the familiar experience of desktop connectivity over 3G wireless networks on hand-held devices with low-powered processors. And best of all, we have the constant challenge of backward compatibility. It’s like a mating call to the under-challenged genius programmers out there.

  • http://jessearmand.com Jesse Armand

    The HTML will only go as far as the browser which displays it.

    You will always rely on the browser capabilities, as native apps rely on the platform or device capabilities.

    Developing Objective-C app is not silly, besides you can also do that for Mac OS X.

    HTML scripts are still as messy as it’s in order to display a user interface. It requires lots of care and diligence, because it’s not as structured as most other User Interface framework using a typical programming language.

  • Stephen Dewey

    Will HTML 5 really replace things like Flash? I’m not sure. Yes, there are video and audio tags (which are overdue), but for anything other than the simplest video/audio playback, you still have to develop a client-side application.

    So then you have to compare the capabilities/development environment of Adobe Flash/Flex with the capabilities/development environment of Javascript 1/2 + HTML 5. It’s still not clear that HTML 5 and JS win in that comparison, especially since Adobe can deliver a lot of new revisions in the decade timescale that is estimated for HTML 5.