What's Wrong with "HTML5"

In the past year or so, the term "HTML5" has increasingly been picked up by the tech press as the successor to "DHTML", "Web 2.0" or "Ajax". When used by the tech press, it is becoming a generic term for "the next generation of web technology", except that the term "HTML5" is less precise than even that.

Consider the first paragraph of an article about HTML published this week:

HTML5 is the hot topic nowadays. Everyone from Apple to Google and everyone else in between have shown their support for the standard. Word has it that HTML5 is the Adobe Flash-killer. It seems that the World Wide Web Consortium [W3C] — which is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web — doesn’t agree. If anything, the W3C doesn’t think that HTML5 is "ready for production yet." ... The problem with HTML5 appears to be that it currently lacks a video codec. In addition, digital rights management [DRM] is also not supported in HTML5, which obviously makes a problem for various companies.

My engineer friends have all but given up on pushing back against the "HTML5" moniker. After all, it's just a term for the tech press. Everyone who knows anything understands that it means just as little as requests for "Ajaxy animations" a few years back, right? I had started to agree with this line of reasoning. It's true: there's no point in being pedantic on this front for the sake of being pedantic.

Unfortunately, the term, and therefore the way the technology is understood by tech writers, is causing some fairly serious problems.

First, keep in mind that unlike "Ajax" or "Web 2.0", which were pretty benign, vague terms, HTML5 sounds like a technology. It can have "beta" versions, and one day it will be "complete" and "ready for production". Take a look at this snippet from an InfoWorld article:

His advice on HTML5 was endorsed by industry analyst Al Hilwa of IDC. "HTML 5 is at various stages of implementation right now through the Web browsers. If you look at the various browsers, most of the aggressive implementations are in the beta versions," Hilwa said. "IE9 (Internet Explorer 9), for example, is not expected to go production until close to mid-next year. That is the point when most enterprises will begin to consider adopting this new generation of browsers."

And because HTML5 is portrayed as a "Flash killer", whether it is "complete" or in "beta" sounds really relevant. In comparison, "Web 2.0" was never portrayed as a technology, but rather the ushering in of a new era of web technologies which would allow people to build new kinds of applications.

The truth is, the "completion" of HTML5 is absolutely irrelevant. At some point, the W3C will approve the HTML5 spec, which will mean nothing about the overall availability of individual features. At some point, the other related specs (like Web Storage and Web Sockets) will be approved, and also mean nothing about the overall availability of individual features.

In response to this conundrum, most of my friends immediately throw out the idea of getting more specific with the tech press. And they're right. The tech press is not going to understand Web Sockets or local storage. They're having trouble even grasping HTML5 video.

The thing is, the core problem isn't that the name is too fuzzy. It's what the name implies. HTML5 sounds like a technology which goes through a beta period and is finally complete. Instead, what the tech press calls "HTML5" is really a continual process of improving the web browsers that people use. And honestly, that's how I'd like to see the tech press cover us. Not as group of people working towards a singular milestone that will change the web as we know it, but as a group that has gotten our groove back.

Tech reporters: please stop talking about the current state of web technologies as an event (the approval of the HTML5 spec). There are interesting stories happening all the time, like Scribd, YouTube, and Gmail leveraging newer web technologies to improve their products. Little guys are doing the same every day. Not everything is about whether "Flash is dead yet". It's worth talking about the tradeoffs that guys like Hulu make, which prevent them from moving to web technologies. But make no mistake: large swaths of the web will be using next-generation browser features well before the last guy does. The process of getting there is an interesting story, and one you should be covering.