Everything you need to know about HTML5

Imagine a web where online apps are as powerful as desktop software, and you never need download a plugin to watch a video. Imagine a web where – instead of irrelevant ads flashing across your screen – you’re presented with targeted offers, such as a free coffee from the Starbucks across the road. For web designers, imagine a web where your site looks and behaves the same in every browser, bringing an end to tailoring your design for different browsers.

Soon you may be able to give your imagination a rest. HTML5 – the latest revision of the web’s markup language – boasts all these features and more. And in a rare show of consensus among the industry, it has the backing of all the major browser makers.

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Is the browser war over?

Can HTML5 really deliver on all of these promises? What does it mean for ordinary web users as well as those folk for whom the web isn’t a pastime but a profession? We’ve been talking to web designers and net professionals to find out.

Introducing HTML5

HTML: The Next Generation kicked off back in June 2004 and is still being drafted. Indeed, it could be ten years before HTML5 becomes the online standard, although some of its features are already stable enough to be implemented today.

We need it: HTML must be brought up to date if it’s to serve the needs of the modern web, and the move from a document-based internet to a multimedia-rich one. The markup language hasn’t been revamped to any meaningful degree since 2001, when XHTML 1.1 was granted the iconic Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Recommendation status.

Little wonder then that the professional developers we spoke to were excited about HTML5. Mark Watson, CEO at mobile web developer Volantis, told us that HTML5 will “both in theory and practice, allow a web browser to become a development platform”, while Jeremy Keith, technical director at web design agency Clearleft and author of HTML5 for Web Designers, said that “a lot of the specification is concerned with allowing developers to build web applications”.

“Web development stagnated for many years when development stopped on Internet Explorer: web developers began to treat HTML, CSS and JavaScript as a stable, unchanging stack,” Keith explained. “Now things are moving at a fast pace, and it’s a very exciting time to be making websites.”

So just what is getting the web developers so excited about HTML5? Let’s take a guided tour of some of the most talked about parts of the specification.

Multimedia set free

One of the most publicised features of HTML5 is the ability to embed video and audio into pages without needing specific plugins. In other words, HTML5 will bring native media support to the web browser – a topical issue following Apple’s decision to ban Flash from the iPad/iPhone.

However, deeper inspection reveals HTML5’s media support isn’t quite the panacea it first appears. While the “plugin is required to view this content” issue is solved, it looks like there will be no single “baseline” codec in HTML5.


Instead, the video element will be specified, as Jeremy Keith puts it, “like the IMG element”, meaning “native video in the web is going to be a pain in the arse for quite a while”. Video will need to be encoded in at least two different formats to ensure cross-browser compatibility, with Microsoft and Apple lining up behind H.264, and Mozilla and Opera rallying around Ogg Theora.

Michael Duxbury, head of project delivery at design firm dotAgency, warns that it won’t offer the quick-win solution that some people expect. “No-one really knows which browser is going to support which codec.”

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