Is HTML 5.0 the answer, or a complication?

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HTML 5.0 is on the verge of being ratified with draft comments posted at the end of June promising to deliver all the features necessary for the web of today around Rich Internet Apps, and to many that means video. So the industry is on the verge of delivering what we all want, right? Well […]

HTML 5.0 is on the verge of being ratified with draft comments posted at the end of June promising to deliver all the features necessary for the web of today around Rich Internet Apps, and to many that means video. So the industry is on the verge of delivering what we all want, right? Well may be not, because the biggest consumer question is why Apple, the multimedia champion, doesn’t support Adobe Flash which is the format the majority of the current content for consumption uses. Is Apple being awkward? Are all those mutterings about Apple building ‘walled gardens’ to exploit its customers true? And will it all end in the same way as it did with the Apple PC in the early nineties, when after taking the lead in the PC market this closed approach led to it losing the lead?
It’s certainly tempting to try to frame the argument in this way, but it ignores the other major player in this space, Microsoft, also going in the Apple direction offering support for HTML 5.0, but not at the expense of it being a substitute for SilverLight. The question as to what enterprises should do about this is important, as with each passing week more and more of their content gets created as videos, and that has typically been done using Adobe. It’s a pretty big decision to make to make a change, especially if consumer eyeballs are for the most part using Adobe. But then on the other hand Apple has built a huge consumer base eager for content on its iPad, and iPhone….. Maybe this piece from Microsoft on how they plan to use HTML 5.0 as a hardware accelerator gets nearer locating the real benefits.

Tough call and generally more on the sales and marketing side, but the CIO side is going to be faced with upgrade decisions especially in the light of how HTML 5.0 means a lot more than mere user video content choices. The CIO will be driven to find some answers, if for no other reason than the traditional upgrade cycle importing HTML 5.0 support. The whole issue is summed up very well by Stephen Shankland in his blog post ‘HTML v Flash; can a turf war be avoided?’. The reaction to this well put together piece must be ‘how did we get into this position?’ and can looking at the history help identify the key issues at stake? Personally I think a sense of perspective makes this issue easier, so the rest of this blog is my summary of the history and fragmentation of HTML, the core language of the Web.
Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) has been at the heart of the World Wide Web from its inception when it was developed by Tim Berners-Lee as the language to semantically describe scientific documents at the CERN research establishment. A relatively straightforward task for the then content-based web addressed by HTML versions 1.0 and 2.0. However by 1995 the complexity of the task led to the start of work on the first major revision as HTML 3.0 which slowly morphed into HTML 4.0 completed in 1998. At this point under the ownership of the World Wide Web Consortium, W3C, the decision was made to stop the development of HTML, and change direction towards building an eXtensible Hyper Text Markup Language, with the resulting XHTML 1.0 appearing in 2000. At this point fragmentation of the approach towards Markup Language, and indeed standards really started with the decision of the W3C to allow a wide assortment of working groups to work in parallel to develop versions to suit particular new requirements.
Under the W3C title of XHTML Modernization by 2003 a wide variety of browser-based standards incorporating some, or all of the original elements, had appeared and competition between commercial browsers was rife based on the incorporation of different features in different ways. Unfortunately this was also becoming visible to users as they found that not all websites were built in a manner that their particular browser could understand. The advent of XForms, and a return to a text-based process, brought attention sharply back to the need for a simple stable version of HTML especially as realisation had dawned that XML based derivatives were only suitable for radical new areas such as RSS, and much of the content of the web on HTML formats.
The possibility of a new version of HTML 4.0 to update and extend function to embrace web forms and similar technology advances was discussed at the W3C in 2004 with the drafting of some of the core attributes for HTML 5.0. Unfortunately at this time the W3C decided that it should continue with its strategy of XHTML Modernization and work based on the development of XML based approaches. The result was the first major split as Apple, Mozilla, and Opera decided to form a separate working group under the title of WHATWG, standing for Web HyperText Application Technology Working Group. However the WHATWG group agreed with the W3C that the results of their efforts to develop a new version of HTML would be published by the W3C and that it would take the form of an open specification for anyone to use.
This move created the Apple adherence to HTML 5.0, as the results of the WHATWG work became known as, and their dislike and refusal to adopt Adobe Flash which was a completely separate development. During the intervening period until 2010 the W3C has supported the work of WHATWG and published its versions of the specifications for HTML 5.0. The differences mostly amount to the W3C believing that certain elements of the WHATWG HTML 5.0 specification are contained in other W3C specifications, though there are certain additional features to be found in the WHATWG specifications for minor tweaks that the sponsors to the working group wanted to add. To try to limit the possible confusion the W3C publishes as an addendum to their HTML 5.0 specification a list of the differences and explanations.
This final paragraph is important in assessing what is THE standard for HTML 5.0 when there are two clearly separate versions.

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