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Saturday, September 19, 2009, 04:00 pm PT (07:00 pm ET)

Why Apple is betting on HTML 5: a web history

Despite making the vast majority of its money from hardware sales, Apple is investing heavily in shaping the future of software. One example of this pertains to HTML 5 and related web standards.

While the standard isn't yet finished, Apple is already using HTML 5 as an important component in the company's strategies, ranging from the iPod touch and iPhone's mobile browser to Safari on the Mac and PC, from Dashboard widgets to new iTunes LP content, and from MobileMe apps to the latest iTunes Store.

Critics have complained that HTML 5 won't be finalized until 2012, and that its completion might be irrelevant anyway because Microsoft is unlikely to ever support the new standard within Internet Explorer. Others wonder if the world really needs any changes to the language underlying the web.

in reality however, many features of HTML 5 are already in widespread use. Apple didn't wait for the final draft of 802.11n before implementing support for the new WiFi standard, and hasn't waited on a final draft of HTML 5 either. Microsoft has also opened up official participation on the HTML 5 standard, indicating serious interest in working with Google, Apple, Mozilla and other companies backing the specification.

But to really get an accurate picture of why HTML 5 matters and how its adoption will change the future of the web and software in general, you have to take a look at the squabbling drama of contention that HTML 5 is emerging from as industry rivals work to achieve a new level of consensus on how the web should work.

WebKit and friends


The Origins of HTML

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) was initially developed by Tim Berners-Lee starting in 1989 as a way to deliver the features of ENQUIRE, a private hyperlinked information database he had worked on for CERN a decade earlier, as an open, distributed application that could work across the Internet. The resulting system, prototyped using the advanced development tools of the NeXT Computer, became known as the World Wide Web.

The new web defined HTML as an application of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), an existing ISO standard used to structure documents with markup commands in order to facilitate the transfer of files between different systems. SGML's use dated back into the 60s as a way for governments, industry and the military to structure complex documents in a way that was unambiguous and could be accessed and modified by automated systems.

SGML markup embedded in a document can be used to annotate presentational features (indicating where text should be bold, for example) procedural features (adding processing instructions along the line of PostScrip drawing commands), or descriptive features (defining parts of the document that could be interpreted in multiple ways for different purposes, such as citations and footnotes).

Depending on the intended use, these forms of markup might be blurred together for simplification (resulting in a basic way to create a web page designed exclusively for human browsing), or may need to be rigorously kept distinct (allowing for a flexible document that can be automatically updated or interpreted by a screen reader for the blind, as well as being rendered for basic human viewing).

The lines between presentation, procedure, and description would become a hotly debated subject for HTML as different viewpoints on the subject, each with a different objective in mind, began to clash.

Launched by private-public cooperation

In order to draft HTML as a recommendation to the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) standards body in 1993, Berners-Lee needed to provide an example of an actual implementation of HTML. He cited the Mosiac browser being developed at the American NCSA, which had been funded by congressman Al Gore as a part of a broad effort to promote the development of high performance computing and communications by leveraging the power of market forces using strategic government investment.

The completely open nature of HTML, backed by government investment in critical implementation work, enabled Berners-Lee's new web to completely overturn the pockets of incompatible, proprietary Internet services that were in the process of dividing users up between the silos of AOL, CompuServe, GEnie, MSN, and similar offerings.

HTML's public definition as an open standard allowed anyone to to set up a server with web page documents that any web browser on any platform could display. As the reality of this tremendous new potential began to sink in, Microsoft realized that the web would not just be a threat to its proprietary new MSN service, but would also be used by companies to reduce their dependance on Windows, allowing them to buy products from any vendor. This sparked its war with Netscape on the implementation side, but there would also be wars on the web standards side.

On page 2 of 3: HTML 2, 3 & 4.