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What is HTML5, and Why Should You Care?


Part of being a good user and consumer is understanding how technology works, why we use it the way we do, and what that barrage of acronyms and PR jargon means. We're here to help you make sense of it all, and to give you a better appreciation of how those transistors, pixels, and antennas work together to deliver the conveniences of the modern world to your living room or office.

What is HTML5?

We're sure by now you've heard the term "HTML5" thrown around by the likes of Apple and Google. This is the next evolution of HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language, which forms the backbone of almost every site on the Internet. HTML4, the last major iteration of the language, debuted in 1997 and has been subsequently poked and prodded so that it can handle the demands of the modern Web.

Why is it such a big deal?

HTML 4 has been tweaked, stretched and augmented beyond its initial scope to bring high levels of interactivity and multimedia to Web sites. Plugins like Flash, Silverlight and Java have added media integration to the Web, but not without some cost. In search of a "better user experience" and battery life, Apple has simply dropped support for some of these plugins entirely on mobile devices, leaving much of the media-heavy Internet inaccessible on iPads and iPhones. HTML5 adds many new features, and streamlines functionality in order to render these processor-intensive add-ons unnecessary for many common functions.

Assuming content providers sign on (and many are), this means you won't have to worry about installing yet another plugin just to listen to a song embedded in a blog or watch a video on YouTube. Similarly, this is a big deal for platforms that either don't support Flash (e.g., iPhone and iPad), or have well documented problems with it (e.g., Linux). It will be a particular boon to those smartphones for which supporting Flash has proven problematic.

So what exactly can it do?

HTML5's most touted features are media playback and offline storage. With HTML4, sites usually have to reach for Flash (or Silverlight) to simply show a video or play music. HTML5 lets sites directly embed media with the simple HTML tags "<video>" and "<audio>" -- no plugins required. There are some issues currently being debated by the powers that be, and a particularly sticky one deals with file format. Some companies, especially Mozilla, are pushing for the adoption of the open-source Ogg format, which is free for anyone to use. Others, like Apple, would prefer the higher quality H.264 format, which will eventually require browser makers to pay licensing fees to support it.

The other major addition that has garnered media attention is the ability to store offline data for Web apps. One of the major roadblocks in the march to replace traditional desktop apps has been that the Web-based ones are useless without an Internet connection. Google developed a stopgap solution with Gears, but that product has been retired as the company is shifting its focus to HTML5. This will mean being able to create files in Google Docs or draft e-mails when away from an Internet connection. These changes would be automatically synced the next time you're online.

HTML5 also adds new interactivity features, like drag-and-drop, that have already found their way into Gmail.

How can I take advantage of it now?

Most likely, you're already taking advantage of it without knowing. Safari (both mobile and desktop), Google Chrome and Firefox 3.6 all support at least some elements of HTML5. (Internet Explorer 8's support for HTML5 is very limited.) And many Google products already use some features of the next-generation protocol. If you're using Safari or Chrome, you can check out an experimental version of YouTube that makes use of HTML5's video features. Gmail and Google Reader have adopted parts of the standard, as well. Additionally, any site listed here as being "iPad ready" is making extensive use of HTML5, including The New York Times, CNN and CBS. The latter of which recently announced it would be phasing out Flash in favor of HTML5 for all video content. If you want to dig a little deeper, you can check out a series of experiments from Mozilla that show just what HTML5 can do, and these design roundups show off what it brings to the table for designers and typographers.

Flash won't be going away anytime soon, of course; it's still widely used and supported, and those Flash-based games that we love so much are impossible to recreate using HTML. But it's important to know that when you hear people tossing about the phrase "HTML5," it isn't just some meaningless buzz word; they're talking about the future of the Internet.

Tags: features, flash, GoogleGears, html, html4, html5, inanutshell, java, silverlight, top, web

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