Thoughts on technology and social web

June 18, 2009

HTML5 – the way ahead

Filed under: NextWeb — Ravikant Cherukuri @ 4:17 am

For many web developers, even though web 2.0 and AJAX was a gaint leap, we were stuck in a place where the HTML 4 (and its many interpretations) was restrictive and there is still a difference between the look and feel of a well designed desktop app and a well designed web-app. Adobe flash, AIR, SilverLight etc attempt to bridge this gap. But what if HTML could do it all. Can JavaScript be powerful enough to do all the things that C#/ActionScript can do? Can HTML5 carry forward the experience and knowledge collectively gained in the last 20 odd years of UX programming? The HTML5 standardization process is going to take a few more years, but browsers are already implementing the draft standard. For developers and companies to invest in HTML5, we need a firm commitment from the browser makers. Especially since the last iteration did not go well.

Browser Alert

In the current imperfect world, HTML4 itself did not realize its potential because of the interpretations that different browsers made of the standard. The end result being all the browser specific quirks that developers are forced to learn. IE (6/7/8), Firefox, Opera, Safari and now Chrome all of them need to get their act together. The user has choice today. So better get your act together or people will move to a different browser. This is the biggest hurdle for HTML5 and also a key test for browsers.

Flashy without flash

I started looking at HTML 5 like many others after watching the google wave demo. The fluidity and interactiveness of the interface is amazing.

A few more examples of what HTML + Javascript could do. Here is a visual studio like editor in HTML developed by firefox.

Firefox 3.5 implemented the video tag of HTML5. This is a really awesome demo.

OTOY is a company trying to take your console into the cloud. It does all the graphics processing on a server and just renders the picture onto your browser with no plugins or downloads. How cool is that?


What does HTML5 have that makes it powerful? There are several new features in HTML5 (list from wikipedia). It brings many patterns of usage today into the language.

  • New parsing rules oriented towards flexible parsing and compatibility
  • New elementssection, article, footer, audio, video, progress, nav, meter, time, aside, canvas, datagrid
  • New types of form controls – dates and times, email, url, search
  • New attributesping (on a and area), charset (on meta), async (on script)
  • Global attributes (that can be applied for every element) – id, tabindex, hidden
  • Deprecated elements dropped – center, font, strike, frames

The canvas tag makes it possible to get flexible drawing into the realm of HTML. I have used other javascript apis that simulate a canvas. These work by drawing 1 pixel divs that are absolutely positioned. The canvas tag is way more economical and elegant.

At last there are combo boxes that are native in HTML using the datagrid tag.

The input tag now has many new types – datetime, datetime-local, date, month, week, time, number, range, e-mail, url, search, color. The progress tag will display a progress bar. It was so dumb that there were 100 different implementations for these. Many other new tags provide HTML native versions of elements that were not natively supported and resourceful javascript junkies had to hand code (figure, footer, header, meter etc)

The video/audio tag (as seen in the firefox demo above), provides rich video/audio embedding and manipulation capabilities natively in HTML.

WebSockets API that provides in-built support for two way communication. This is a good idea with the proliferation of real-time web applications with long-poll/COMET etc. This might take us to a true real-time duplex connectivity. An interesting comparision of AJAX/COMET to HTML5 can be found here.

The <script> tag has an async attribute that makes the page load to continue while the script is loading. This will speed up page loading and improve user experience. With the complexity and size of the scripts on the rise, this is very handy.

The browsing context defines the algorithm that browsers use for navigation and the related sessions history traversal. A browsing context is an environment in which Document objects are presented to the user.

Session history and navigation using javascript APIs.

Cross domain communication using Window.postMessage. This is already in most browsers and what a relief. The earlier cross domain communication techniques (hacks) relied on changing the hashes (the test that follows #) in a URL and a background timer. eeeks!

Offline web application caches. Google gears/Windows live mesh etc have build this with no browser support in a non standard way. Now HTML5 defines this as a standard. The ononline and onoffline events give javascript the ability to track connectivity and will enable the AJAX application to behave accordingly (detailed article).

DOM Storage as a way to store meaningful amounts of client-side data in a persistent and secure manner. John Resig of the jQuery fame wrote this article that explains this in detail. Looks very powerful and can be used to enable and optimize many desktop app like scenarios.

Editing API in combination with a new global contenteditable attribute and something called an UndoManager that will support undo/redo for content edits. Sounds good for a totally in browser content editors and development environments.

Support for spelling and grammar checking. Some drag and drop support. Many link types to give meaning to links. This looks like part of micro-format and semantic web support.

Frankly i thought there would be more to support semantic web, linked data and such. But may be there is. This spec is a work in progress (a mess). Somewhere it mentions that the HTML5 spec has a lot of things that should have their own specs but due to the lack of volunteers to own the specs, all the stuff got dumped into one. Sad for such an important piece of work.

With all these features and many more that i could not get to, HTML5 is aiming to bring the flexibility and performance of desktop applications to the web. I am sure over time, these features will get better defined so that they can be interpreted without ambiguity. This is important to make web application work cross browser. The more I read about this stuff, the more I am convinced that this will succeed and take over many of the scenarios that are served by Flash, AIR and SilverLight. There might still be some applications where these will stay relevant. But if you are looking for state of the art presentation and interactivity, HTML5 will do it.

Developer’s Woes

jQuery and prototype are two JavaScript libraries with a lot of promise. Take a look at jQuery Tools and what HTML4 can do. With HTML5, and all the new functionality, javascript now is a very complicated (and powerful) language. How do you handle your application complexity and size as yout javascript, HTML and CSS grow in size? There are many solutions for managing HTML like ASP.NET, JSP, PHP etc. How about your javascript? How would you unit test your javascript code? How would you make it reusable?

One option is to go with libraries like prototype and jQuery that make it very easy to do common tasks and if you buy into their design philosophy, its a very compelling was to design your code as well. JavaScript is powerful and elegant. If you know how to write good code that is. Its not very difficult to get a hang of it. The advantage of this approach is that you stay true and antive to JavaScript and can take advantage of the fast pace of innovation here. The prototype library has unit test support too. Never used it myself though.

The other option is to use the “more evolved” server side languages like java or C# to write your code and use a cross compiler to generate the javascript for you. GWT (Java -> JavaScript) and Script# (C# to JavaScript) are good examples here. There are also other cross compilers like pyjamas (Python -> JavaScript), Objective-J (Objective-C to JavaScript). The advantage of using one of these approaches is that you could use your native language (if its not already JavaScript). You can use a development enviroment that is built to handle size and complexity (like Visual Studio/Eclipse etc) and take advantage of features like intellisense and refactoring tools. You could also leverage existing unittesting frameworks. Quite a few complex AJAX applications on the web today use this model.

If HTML5 is to replace the other desktop application development technologies, it would need more powerful and integrated tools so that you dont have to be an expert to develop these apps. The HTML WYSIWYG tools have to evolve to support not only the language features but also the common patterns so well designed software will be easy to do.

Will update this blog with more exciting HTML5 thingies as I find them.



  1. thats a lot of info!

    Comment by wackao — June 21, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  2. This is an excellent outline. Thanks. Consider also that HTML5’s Persistent Offline Storage is significant information security and risk management challenges. I believe that it is going to materially increase the importance of effectively sanitizing inputs and encoding outputs to resist XSS — and the new types of damage that can be caused when they are directed against persistent offline storage. See a longer version of this argument at:
    Matt McCright

    Comment by completosec — February 7, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  3. Hi Ravi,

    Nifty information. Google search moved it to the top page for html5 related search for me! 🙂


    Comment by Amit C — December 2, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

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