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Why Apple is betting on HTML 5: a web history

WHATWG launches HTML 5

The glacial and mostly irrelevant progress being made on web standards within the W3C resulted in Apple, Mozilla, and Opera joining together in 2004 to start up the independent WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group), focused on advancing HTML, CSS, DOM, and JavaScript to serve as a viable platform for rich web apps.

WHATWG was pointedly designed to bypass Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Sun JavaFX and return the web to its open roots. in order to achieve that goal, it needed to modernize the HTML specification, which hadn't really progressed since 1999. Additional work was also required to adapt the DOM and advance JavaScript with APIs to provide rich web app features more akin to desktop applications, such as drag and drop, advanced drawing, and offline editing.

In 2007, WHATWG recommended its specification of HTML 5 for adoption by the WC3 as the new starting point for the future of the web in place of XHTML 2.0. This time, the W3C accepted the proposal and a new HTML working group was subsequently formed. In January 2008, the first public working draft of HTML 5 was published.

The future of HTML 5

HTML 5's proponents determined to solve a series of issues that had plagued previous efforts to advance the HTML specification. The working group affirmed the practical necessity of backward compatibility, the importance of specifications matching the implementation (as opposed to creating laws that aren't and won't be obeyed), and the need for the specification to be clear and unambiguous enough so that individual vendors can actually achieve full interoperability.

It's important to note that HTML 5 isn't one big difficult leap like moving from Windows XP to Vista, or from IPv4 to IPv6. According to Google's Mark Pilgrim, the HTML 5 specification is simply a collection of detailed feature implementations that browsers can support. In fact, some browsers already support features like geolocation, local storage, offline apps, canvas, and the new audio and video tags. Apple's Safari 4 and mobile Safari on the iPhone already do.

Unlike the early days of the web, where browser developers impatiently added features and then asked the standards bodies to recognize them, today's browser vendors are impatiently waiting for new specifications to be defined so they can complete support for them in their browsers. By focusing on practical features that can be implemented by anyone, HTML 5 is capturing the attention of everyone in the web industry, from open source vendors to Microsoft.

Vendors on HTML 5

Vendors' stance on HTML 5 is predictably based on how they will be affected by it. For example, both Mozilla and Opera are highly motivated to push HTML 5 because it enables them to compete on a level playing field in the browser market rather then being shut out by either proprietary plugin developments that only work on certain platforms (like Flash), or web pages coded specifically for a specific browser.

Apple is highly motivated to push HTML 5 because it enables the company to compete in rich media delivery on the web (against Flash), create rich web apps in MobileMe, support third party rich web apps on its iPhone and Mac platforms, and reduce its exposure to incompatibilities and security issues related to third party web-alternative plugins such as Flash and Silverlight.

Google is highly motivated to push HTML 5 because it allows the company to deliver rich new web apps that can better compete against desktop alternatives (such as Office), creates a level playing field for all web browsers to foster competition, eliminates its need to use Flash for serving YouTube videos, and allows the company to deliver Chrome OS as an alternative to a conventional operating system on PCs.

Despite the potential threats to Office and Windows that HTML 5 delivers, Microsoft also sees the need to participate in HTML 5 because its browser share has now dipped to around 65%. The biggest chunk of Microsoft's IE users, as of August 2009, are still using IE 6. That means while IE leads other browsers in the total number of users, it does not lead in terms of setting new standards anymore. More people are now using Firefox 3 than IE 8; both were released last year.

Adobe on HTML 5

The biggest critic of HTML 5 has been Adobe. When asked about how HTML 5 might be an opportunity or threat to the company during an earnings conference call this summer, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen answered, "I think the challenge for HTLM 5 will continue to be how do you get a consistent display of HTML 5 across browsers. And when you think about when the rollout plans that are currently being talked about, they feel like it might be a decade before HTML 5 sees standardization across the number of browsers that are going to be out there."

In realty though, history shows that HTML standards were either adopted almost immediately or never. Even the fear that Microsoft might never get around to adding support for HTML 5 features is hard to argue, both with the company's expressed interest, its previous efforts to apply web specifications when it had a competitive need to do so, and the capacity for third parties to extend IE to support many of the features in HTML 5. That's essentially what Google Gears does.

Once Adobe realizes it can make more money selling authoring tools for HTML 5 than it can in catering to a dwindling group of Flash designers, its outlook is likely to change dramatically. That shift from plugin maintenance to standards-based tool creation will enable the company to rely upon a platform created by the community, largely Mozilla and WebKit, rather than trying to implement its Flash, Flash Lite, and AIR runtimes on different hardware platforms and within different browsers. Because clearly that isn't working.

Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)

Daniel Eran Dilger is the author of "Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)," a new book from Wiley available now for pre-order at a special price from Amazon.