Friday, February 05, 2010

It's 2010, where's my HTML5?

This morning, one of my co-workers related to me that there had been mention of HTML 5 on an NPR broadcast that he heard. He joked that this morning there were probably lots of advertisers asking their designers about using HTML 5 for their next whiz-bang ad campaign. So obviously we are still in the early part of a hype cycle on HTML 5. So what's the state of the technology and where is it heading?

In terms of pure technology, there is a lot of notable progress. Google did the right thing recently and axed Gears. They had some nice innovations in Gears that have since been rolled up into the HTML 5 standard. Now it makes perfect sense to abandon their proprietary implementation, and embrace the standard. Gears is important because it is (or was) part of Chrome. Thus there are essentially five browsers that now implement a significant subset of HTML 5: IE8, Firefox 3.5, Safari 4, Chrome 4, Opera 10. According to the latest browser share numbers, that means that 53% of users out there are using a browser that supports a lot of cool features, like local storage and selectors. That's more than half! It's tempting to extrapolate from that, but don't get too carried away.

The #1 browser of the HTML 5 browsers, is IE8 -- which does not support a lot of the features that the other browsers support like canvas, video tag, and web workers. For those would be HTML 5 advertisers out there, you better scale back your expectations. For desktop browsers, a lot of the most compelling HTML 5 capabilities are far from being widely supported. How long until IE9 comes out? How much more of HTML 5 will it support? How long until there is high adoption of it? That's too many questions to be comfortable with. Ask me again this time next year.

However, it's fun to pretend sometimes. Let's pretend that IE 9 did come out soon and that it supported everything supported by Firefox and Chrome. Let's even pretend that Microsoft was able to awaken some of their old monopolist mojo and somehow force people to upgrade. So we have a world full of canvas. Will the next great annoying ad use this? If you read my last post on Flash hate, you probably realize the answer is no. As Terry pointed out in the comments there, the Flash authoring tools really empower designers over developers. So before we see an explosion of canvas magic, there will have to be huge strides made in tooling. Now what about video? Even in our dream world, there are issues known as codecs. There is no common video format that will run on both Firefox and Chrome right now, and who knows what Microsoft will do here (WMA FTW!) So we are going to need some technical consolidation here. Let's summarize all of the things that we need to see happen to open up the golden age of HTML 5.

1.) New version of Internet Explorer that supports much more of the HTML 5 specification.
2.) This new version of IE needs to become the dominant flavor of IE.
3.) Outstanding tooling developed to enable designers to leverage HTML 5 capabilities.
4.) Standardization on video codecs by browser vendors.

Don't get too bummed out about all of this. I actually think there is real progress happening on #1 and #3. #4 probably has to wait for #1 to happen. #2 is the most problematic. Since we're dreaming, maybe if IE 9 came out with H.264 support, Google could dramatically drop support for anything else on YouTube, and thus nudge all IE users to upgrade?

If you want to drink the HTML 5 Kool-Aid, and this is bumming you out, I'm sorry. You might feel better to know that the HTML 5 situation is significantly better on mobile devices. According to AdMob, 81% of internet usage in North America was either on iPhones or Android devices. Now, most of those Android devices are running Android 1.5 or 1.6, whose browsers (can we call it Mobile Chrome please?) still use Gears -- not HTML 5. Let's  hope that most of those are upgraded (by their carriers) to Android 2.1 soon, and then we're in business. We've got all kinds of HTML 5 goodness available to 80%+ of the users out there.

The bad news is that the mobile market is fundamentally different than the desktop (though, that may be changing.) Here mobile websites compete directly against native applications. Desktop users rarely face the question, should I use an app or a website to do XYZ? Normally XYZ dictates one or the other. So for a company, there may be a lot of cool stuff you can do with HTML 5 on a mobile browser, but there are even more cool things you can do in a native app. Not only are the native apps more powerful, they are generally easier to build because of superior tooling and cohesive architecture. Maybe JavaScript vs. Objective-C vs. Java is a matter of taste, but HTML 5 has nothing even resembling the application models presented by Cocoa and Android. Instead it has the DOM APIs in JavaScript. Now throw on the differences in tooling, and you can see why for many companies it is cheaper and easier to build an iPhone app and an Android app instead of building one HTML 5 app. That's not even considering the hypothesis that the "app store" model is more appealing to end users than the browser model.


Codesquid said...

HTML5 just isn't viable as commercial technology yet. It's not widely supported enough. It's great for a site with a high proportion of users with a modern browser, such as a web design blog, but other than that, for the moment it will sadly remain pretty much an experimental feature.

Mario said...

IMHO, the sweet spot for HTML5 at the moment is mobile apps. You can write a mobile app in HTML5/CSS/JS etc that can be installed on the device and deploy to iPhone, Android, WebOS (and others) and not have to support multiple codebases. I am working on an application that uses a mobile framework called phongap. It's worth checking out if you haven't heard of it. The framework exposes some native platform capabilities via a JS API so you can use geolocation or the address book (or camera) or other features available to native apps. As well, these kinds of apps are distributable via the platform app stores (which is how you really want to reach your users).

These apps may not look as appealing or perform as quickly as native apps, though, so the approach fits only for a subset of mobile apps (ones that do not require a sophisticated UI). That said, it opens the door of mobile development to a much bigger audience.

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