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Big Things Ahead for HTML 5

Q: Will HTML5 or XHTML5 be the next big thing or just another collection of past standards and browser war fodder?

The short answer is that, yes, HTML 5 is the next big thing.

The slightly longer answer is that it’s going to be a while before you have to start worrying about HTML 5.

The long answer is that, as with all standards, before it becomes relevant, the browser makers have to implement it and then you'll have to wait even longer before legacy browsers are no longer an issue. So, you have some time before you have to run out and buy a new HTML 5 Visual QuickStart Guide. The good news is that HTML 5 has gone to great lengths to stay backwards compatible, so you can begin to learn and implement it today.

It’s important to understand, though, that although HTML 5 is the next step in Web mark-up and will take over from XHTML, there is not an XHTML 5. There was supposed to be an XHTML 2. It was in development for almost 8 years and would have been the next big thing, but XTML was finally laid to rest early this year in favor of HTML 5.

A Brief History of HTML

To understand how this all came about, let’s take a little trip back to the halcyon days of the Web at the end of the 20th century—1997 to be precise. It was still a Web 1.0 world, although of course we didn’t know to call it that yet. The dotcom bubble was just starting to inflate and everyone was surfing the Web with Netscape Navigator. Into that landscape HTML 4.0 was introduced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the governing body vested with the responsibility of taming the wild west of Web code by creating standards that everyone was supposed to use.

HTML 4 was certainly an improvement over what had come before, because it was created by a standards body that wanted to make sure that everyone had a seat at the table and believed that Web pages should display the same regardless of the browser the user happened to be using (an enlightened concept I wish someone would explain to certain corporate IT departments whose internal sites only work on one version of one browser on one OS). For all intents and purposes, little has changed since then for HTML. Sure, we now have XHTML, released in 2001, but that was primarily meant to be a transitional technology, and it's mostly repackaged HTML 4 in an XML wrapper.

The Problem With XHTML 2

It was quickly realized that even XHTML was not enough to evolve the Web from its relatively static nature into a truly interactive and universal environment. XHTML 2 was meant to change all of that. Starting in August of 2002, the authors of the XHTML standard began crafting a new language they hoped would completely retool Web markup for the 21st century, bringing about a golden age of semantic Web pages, interactivity, internationalization, device independence, and tapioca pudding for everyone! They forgot just one thing—the Web was created in the 20th century and the browsers that support that 20th century Web would not be able to run their whiz-bang 21st century code.

And then there was HTML 5

In June 2003, what would eventually become HTML 5 started life as Web Applications 1.0, created by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) which was not associated with the W3C. Instead, this independent group, frustrated with the pace and direction that XHTML was taking, worked on an alternative that would not only be backwards compatible, but would also address many of the practical issues Web developers face.

For several years, both languages were developed simultaneously, but in 2007, seeing that Web Applications 1.0 was further along than XHTML 2, the W3C adapted it as the starting point for a new HTML 5 standard, publishing the “First Public Working Draft” of the specification on January 22, 2008. The W3C recently announced that it would not renew the XHTML Work Groups charter when it expires later this year in order to focus more attention in HTML 5.

What HTML 5 Does that HTML 4 Does Not

HTML 5 makes important structural changes to Web pages—for example, allowing you to specify common elements such as headers, footers, articles, and asides. In addition, HTML 5 will bring us many features natively (i.e. built into the browser) that used to require plug-ins and/or scripting:

  • Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that will allow developers to add interactivity much more easily
  • The Canvas Tag, which allows scriptable bitmap editing
  • DOM Storage, which allows for persistent data storage beyond what is possible with cookies
  • Document editing
  • Web forms that self validate and include more input types
  • Drag and drop of elements without scripting
  • Timed media playback

An attempt was made to include a standardized video CODEC, so that all browsers would support a common video format. Unfortunately this was removed after protests from Apple and Nokia.

There is no escaping that HTML 5 is where Web design and development is headed. Many browsers have already started supporting some of its features, even though it's not a standard yet. That said, one notable curmudgeon on support (as it always seems to be) is Internet Explorer. However, Microsoft is at least reviewing the standard and hope springs eternal. Still, it will be a while before HTML 5 is really a big thing.

Now, is someone going to ask me how HTML 5 works?

Jason Cranford Teague has been coding HTML since before it even had a number. He is the author of over 13 book on digital media. His most recent book, Speaking In Styles: The Fundamentals of CSS for Web Designers, is available now. His next book, Fluid Web Typography: A Guide, will be out later this year.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonspeaking.

Ask a question, win a book! Jason will be answering Web design questions each week, and each week the person whose question he chooses will win a copy of his new book Speaking In Styles.