Long-brewing HTML5 has labored to become an alternative to Ajax, Flash and Silverlight. It promises to bring rich interactivity into the Internet browser, and has been at the center of controversy as heavyweights Apple Computer Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc. debate interface formats for next-generation devices.
But HTML5 will likely continue to lag rich Internet application platforms, says analyst Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research. Alternatives such as Flash and Silverlight are gaining traction while HTML5 goes through birth pains, Hammond indicated.
Still, the HTML5 buzz grew last month when Google open-sourced its VP8 video codec. The abilities and licensing issues surrounding such video converters have been a sticking point as beta HTML5 versions have come forward.
HTML5 focuses on building fuller, more interactive Web applications like those that can be made with Flash rather than just the static Web page documents for which previous versions of HTML4 were known, although Ajax enhancements have gone a long way to keep plain HTML browsers in the game.
A new report from Forrest research, though, emphasizes it will be some time before HTML5 gains broad enough support to challenge incumbent rich Internet application (RIA) platforms such Flash, Flex and Silverlight.
"Until you get consistent behavior the question will be why you would use HTML5 when it actually creates more challenges than it solves from a testing and deployment perspective," said Hammond, author of the report.
In fact, broad browser support is key to wide adoption, and enterprises are not in a hurry to tailor apps to run on multiple browser platforms.
Still, HTML5 is intended to be an enterprise-class product – and is of interest to architects who see more and more corporate applications connecting Web services and running on the Internet browser. The days when HTML was for web surfing are, of course, long gone.
The"[The people creating HTML5] clearly want to make it easier to build applications as well as websites," said Hammond.
Test once, run anywhere?
Hammond's recent report - whimsically titled ''Does HTML 5 Herald The End Of RIA Plug-Ins? Not Really'' - found that application delivery through RIA platforms at SMBs and large enterprises rose to 34% in 2009 from 26% in 2008. This suggests an upward trend in adoption for mature RIA platforms while the HTML5 specification is still in a draft state.
"Certainly for Web-site-type material, there's no reason why you can't use HTML5 today," said Hammond. "But if you're going to do that right now, you have to be prepared to test across major browsers and also have a fallback position."
Extensive testing is required with HTML5 because support across different browsers, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox, is still spotty. Hammond said this is less of an issue when you use HTML5 for simple layout structures and maybe an animation or two.
While Hammond's report says that the use of proprietary RIA platforms is growing in spite of HTML5, Ian Hickson, developer of Acid2 and Acid3 Web browser tests, author of HTML5, and now a developer at Google, points out one aspect of HTML5 that may lift its popularity. "The big advantage HTML5 has over proprietary technologies is that it's a multi-vendor open specification; if your browser developer decides that your needs aren't important, you can always use another browser," said Hickson.
The open aspect of HTML5, though, may also work against its progress, as open standards tend to take some time to develop. While the editors are shooting for a candidate recommendation by 2012, its adoption and maturity will depend in part on gaining some uniformity in browser support. Forrester's Hammond said 2013 would more likely be the "inflection point" for HTML5 adoption.
While it may take a while for the body overseeing the specification, the W3C, to iron out the browser-related issues and formalize the specification, the manner in which HTML5 is designed makes it possible to use right now.
Vendors - big and small - and individuals have begun to work with HTML5 well ahead of formal W3C adoption, and Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), which penned the original HTML5 spec that W3C is considering, has continued to create HTML5. But HTML5 efforts have sometimes been at loggerheads, especially in the case of underlying HTML5 codecs for video.
Time for uniformity
"Perhaps the most exciting thing about HTML5 is that it is being specified with backwards compatibility in mind," said Mathias Bynens, Web developer at Qiwi Web design Dendermonde. "This means that, up to a certain level, anyone can start using HTML5 today."
At Qiwi, Bynens has been building enterprise websites in HTML5 for about a year. Many of the specification's updates serve to clarify some of the existing HTML4 elements while adding new elements for commonly used behaviors, Bynens said.
Gaining some semblance of uniformity across browsers – and solid consensus among their vendors – could take time. While the recent Forrester Report suggests HTML5 will not be used for enterprise applications for a few more years, its backwards compatibility with HTML4 makes it useful today for front-end Web development.
"Specs are like software," said Ian Hickson. "They're in development until they're dead. I expect that by the time we're ready to say HTML5 is done, we'll already be using its successor."