Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; his 9-to-5 home is at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. There he works on Skylight, the smart profiler for Rails, and does Ember.js consulting. He is best known for his open source work, which also includes Thor and Handlebars. He travels the world doing open source evangelism and web standards work.

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.

34 Responses to “What’s Wrong with “HTML5″”

here here.

It’s worth pointing out that a lot of people are going to be using HTML5 and Flash at the same time (Although not for exactly the same purposes). The whole framing that web video is a zero-sum game definitely isn’t reasonable.


Don’t worry. Tech reporters are, after all, reporters. Just a little more intelligent than monkeys but less than dolphins.

I think we are just fine and we should all continue pioneering open web technologies whether they’re part of the HTML5 spec or not. I really don’t care much. All I want as a developer is better APIs and better support for those APIs in as many browsers as possible and that is what’s happening right now. It’s the browser vendors’ job to make sure things go smooth. We sure are trying to remedy any shortcomings as a community by submitting bug reports and fixing code (unless, you know, it’s that special browser we don’t really know why it’s still there). That’s where the tech press could help us: Increase awareness of glaring holes in implementations.

I agree that the tech press should understand what HTML5 is and repeat that to the rest of the world. Though in the end I’m happy if they say “it” is great and we all profit from the greater exposure :-)

I read one of the above mentioned articles this morning and was shocked at the statement that W3C was recommending not using the HTML5 features yet. Since commercial tooling is currently lacking to automatically generate code which uses the new features you can surmise that those using them will be knowledgeable in where they will be supported and how to gracefully fall back if necessary to support rendering a site appropriately in older browsers. It is the desire to be able to render and view applications and sites properly that use new technology which urges users to upgrade, not standards committees. The majority of users have no idea who W3C is but have a good idea if a site doesn’t look correct to them when it does to all of their peers.

I also find it humorous when I see articles comparing HTML5 video performance to Flash performance. It’s not exactly apples-to-apples when one technology has had > 10 years to mature and the other is barely in its infancy. The whole idea of “x” killer is just ridiculous. In a free market where does the “there can be only one” mentality fit in?

Could we piggyback on the HTML5 meme as a way to get people to upgrade their browsers? Saying “Your browser does not support HTML5″ is much cleaner than saying “Your browser has an inefficient javascript engine” or “your browser does not support X feature you’ve never heard of”. Just trying to track the silver lining…

Joe, it seems for Apple there can be no Flash. The market isn’t always free due to vendor lock-ins (both old and new)

HTML5 – is an upgrade with some new features. And hard to believe that it will replace flash in the near future.

I remember reading a proposal to come up with a new acronym for web standards that rolls off the tongue (like Ajax) but doesn’t refer to any specific technology. I believe most of the consensus was on “HART” (HTML and related technologies) which leaves it open for interpretation as to what that actually includes.

Some of your points I agree with, yet :

“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.”

is entirely false. The HTML5 spec will not be approved until two browsers support the spec entirely. This means that at the very minimum, the overall availability of all of the approved HTML5 specification’s features will be : All of them. In at the very least, two of the major web browsers available at that time.
Also, you can see what browsers already support which parts of the spec and their level of implementation in the working draft over at :

the canvas element for example :
(Look at the “Implemented and widely deployed” note that pops up to the left denoting availability.)

I understand what you are getting at and it’s when you see Apple and Microsoft’s “HTML5″ demos, which largely consist of CSS 3, that it hits home. Even those who are implementing parts of the HTML5 draft spec are using the the term “HTML5″ too loosely and to mean some HTM which may or may not use some of the recommendations found in the HTML5 draft spec.

I agree with you about flash and I think that h.264 will largely become niche by the time HTML 6 comes to the forefront if webM becomes supported in Flash and becomes widely adopted by the majority of video serving websites.
I have a horrible feeling though, that native webM video tag support is likely going to go the way of transparent png support in IE. With the browser makers who don’t implement it natively, playing catch up years later.
Only time will tell.

All I know is I’m going to round some mother fucking corners thanks to HTML5.

The web as a platform should not be put in a postion where phases of it’s existence are attributed to the underlying core
technologies themselves. Where as web 1.0 is dead, and web 2.0 is dispised, HTML4 was never in the discussion, or cited
as a culprit. To cite HTML4 as a phase that is on the decline 4 years ago, would have been synonomous with suggesting
the web is dead.

The danger with using the HTML5 moniker to referer to the new “phase” of the web would be a detrement to the platform because
as with all “phases”, this to will eventuall pass, and a new era or “phase” will be advocated. At that time, instead of saying
“maaaaan! super web is done. on to the next one!” people would instead be saying “maaaan! HTML5 is dead! on to the next one!”
except the next one is not even on the horizon, HTML5 will last perhaps a decade. A decade on the web can contain as much as
2 or three phases.

In other words:

Web10 < HTML4
Web20 < HTML4
????? < HTML5

The current web needs a class name.

I would like to suggest, "NativeWeb", as the web will become a lot more "Native".

Well said katz! Totally agree with you too Joe! I find it hilariously hypercritical that Steve Jobs puts down as one of the reasons that he doesn’t want apple to support flash though is because ‘Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary’ and not open enough.. bahahaha!
Regardless of Flash’s current pitfalls there are still millions of companies still invested in Adobe’s technology and while HTML5 can definately be regarded as a competitor, there is still room enough for the both of them. Adobe will invest time and money trying to fix their problems just the same as HTML5 will. Damn Christopher Lambert and his Highlander quotes, sharing’s caring people ;)

“cancel bubble”, are you being facetious? Or are you equating HTML5 with CSS3?

@cancel bubble
You must be one of those “tech reporters” then, right?

If the Marketing folks, including some of the tech press, have got hold of HTML5, they are not going to relinquish control until the term has been used up.
Better for the technically minded folks to defer, whenever avoidance of confusion is required. Such as using a nice ugly URI namespace.

Great post! Don’t forget CSS3 being used in the same vain. The other day I saw a post on HN touting a “Pure CSS3 progress bar”. Of course, this progress bar consisted of image files and javascript. “Pure” indeed. HTML5 and CSS3 are being touted as the future of the web and javascript seems to be doing all of the work. There are great new features to both that allow for neat new things, but you can only attribute so much to two technologies meant solely to markup and stylize information.

CSS2 was never really supported by one(!) sole browser I think (maybe Prince XML?). First there had to be CSS 2.1 to remove some features and then tada, there were full implementations.

But who cares? There is a huge difference on XHTML and HTML5, XHTML (shipped at xml+application) was broken because IE didn’t switch to XML context but stayed in text/html, shipping it as text/html makes no sense though. It was completely useless and kind of wrong to use (it was better to use html4strict). It also had drawbacks (no target=”_blank”?).

The story is entirely different for HTML5. With a few patches (for instance but not limited to html5boilerplate) you can have almost full backwards compatibility on large parts of the html5′s standard’s draft.

Sure its a draft, so what? Web applications (at least the lively ones, those who are being used much and/or generate cash/donations/content) are living entities, and mostly data is stored not in pure HTML5 but in some abstraction (like RDBMS, NoSQL, XML, whatever). So while it wouldn’t be wise to write HTML5 exporters for your most loved rails CMS there is no single valid point in not adopting most supported features of HTML5 in webkit/gecko/presto and v8/nitro/jaegermonkey/carakan. For the IE world you just support all necessary features and basic design + some upgrade notice if its not sufficient (you will have to care for IE6 anyway so you have the trouble anyway).

There you go, you get HTML5 (sure not everything of the 100% spec, but you will probably never get that as long as you do not stick to one platfrom).

While the tech journalists make mistakes, its a W3 mistake in this case here, its the wrong message at the wrong time. Its not the only time they made mistakes, people do mistakes, things happen. Nothing to worry about, use the HTML5 draft gracefully ( with browser detection and Theora/x264/WebM, should work ACROSS the board this way) and if you do it right most of the content will even be readable with NN4 or Lynx (if you do it wrong, like most of the ExtJS guys for instance, you build up hurdles without reason).

As a final note: its better to have display: inline-block; and border-radius than meaningless-spammy div-tag-soup. Its better now and better for the future (for, for whatever). If you do not overdo it its better to use some well supported core html5 elements for semantic document structure “design” than to use div soup and follow the w3 recommendation.

p.s: sorry for my bad english, non native

To add something: its better to use webfonts as soon as possible instead of using generated images or even Flash *gasp*. Its better now, and better for the future. For those clients who can’t do it: they will still read and they have the choice of upgrading (for free).

Front end web tech hasn’t been sexy for a long time, so analysts are pretty rusty. I spent about an hour with Al Hilwa last month walking him through the state of what people are calling “HTML5″ – core spec vs. satellite specs, distinguishing it from CSS3, explaining about CSS3 modules, their capabilities, and the lifecycle of specifications, state of completion in various browsers etc; and explaining the difference between bitmap and vector graphics and explaining the state of SVG standardization. Talking about capabilities vs. flash etc. in near term and longer.

I wonder why you guys never objected to the usage of ‘Ajax’ Vs ‘AJAX’. Wasn’t it the same?

With almost a patch a week from Adobe, I am too eager to dump Flash. The only thing that stops me is nothing technical. Hurdles mostly are those stupid animated menu bar and online video sites. Online games? Maybe but those are casual gaming and can easily do without. As a user (Not developer! Not advertiser! Not power user! A simple user) it doesn’t matter if HTML5 is a moving target or a branding, it is okay as long as not creating more problems.

if microsoft buys adobe, do you think they’ll keep supporting a flash player on MacOSX or Linux or iPhone or even Android? will they sue anyone that does try to produce a flash player, or flash-compatible tools?

is that proprietary enough for you?

I agree with greggT, if microsoft buys adobe, do you think they’ll keep supporting a flash player….

I disagree with the whole “lots of companies invested into flash” – neither as a user nor as a developer I do care if they invested in a wrong and broken technology just because their /seemed/ to offer RIA with point and click developer tools.

Neither is a Mic’robe (or Macromicrobe if you count in Macromedia ;) a factor: if MS buys Adobe they will somehow merge Silverlight and Flash (or support both) but for sure they won’t kill their most distributed browser plugin/VM (that would be Flash), that would be economically idiotic. If you want to build your web apps with flash – then you can. Besides iOS its not dead and won’t be, it is just a really bad technology and a bad choice but not a choice you can’t make for some time in the future. So (gracefully) going with the “HTML5″-Tech pool, currently available, is just the better but not the only option.

If you expect tech reporters to understand any of this or even care, you are mistaken.

“Tech reporters” nowadays are simply “average joe” users. They write about whatever that was trendy these last few months, regardless of whether they knew much about the subject or not — because, of course, doing thorough research is out of the question these days. They regurgitate more or less the same stuff that other average joe users wrote — it’s their ticket to the bandwaggon. Add a controversial title and voila! It attracts the page views and clicks they were looking for. And that’s all that matters.

I don’t think that InfoWorld quote supports your argument. The analyst isn’t referring to HTML5 as being in beta, he was saying that most of the browsers that are implementing a lot of the HTML5 spec are _browsers_ that are in beta. He then proceeds to talk about how IE9 will support the spec but it (IE9) is not expected to ship close to mid-next year.

I think he singled out IE9 because it’s still the most popular browser in enterprises. So until IE9 goes gold, he argues that HTML5 adoption will be slow.

This article is a nice writeup about the reality of HTML5. It helps me to clear some of my confusion surrounding HTML5. There are lots of challenges to accept HTML5 for any implementation. And for solving real world problem like DRM vedio, it needs to come some better solution. AFter that may be serious focus can be given to HTML5. AJAX concept nicely and able to leverage what is already available. So there is no much tension in developement point of view to go for it or not.

HTML5 capability gives better chance of success to the project like SproutCore. Which can take HTML5 capability when available, also able to go traditional approach in other case. Thanks again for the nice writeup :)

Here they go for even more “don’t use HTML5 “-FUD:

Some efforts are underway to make HTML5 more modular. “the HTML WG has started to break the HTML 5 specification into more modular and separate Working Drafts” (Paul Cotton)

That will also help to explain other people what those chunks/modules are about.

I love the way you explained it. HTML5 is a process like a guide. A complicated process that requires many minds, working on different fronts. It should be like life itself, here is more in life than speeding it.

The Spec Isn’t Real, Only Reality Matters!

We’ve all heard this before. Like the Philosopher at the pub who insists that it “doesn’t” “actually” “matter” what the laws are, just what the cops who sees you will arrest you for. It might sound convincing at the time, and yet, rule of law exists to a large degree in most places, and has proven benefits. The “it isn’t real” crowd may or may not feel like they gained some knowledge, but there is no benefit to them or others in their “contribution.”

It might be even more real to focus on if the spec is good enough to, or even trying to, do what the blowhards are hailing. Or just ignore it. I don’t see how it’s harmful for the clueless to gain a reverence for specifications. Seems to me like that should be encouraged.

And the term has strict meaning; however eclectic or arbitrary the bag of features it describes are. And Apple will misuse or make up terms to try to control their public image. This is known. Remember their attempt to be sexy (SCSI) when people apparently decided it made them scuzzy?

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