Saturday, July 23, 2011

HTML5: Well, Maybe.

I just finished reading an article about Roger McNamee’s bold predictions about social media.  Aside from some the interesting business predictions (e.g., don’t invest in new social media startups: that train has left the station) that I mostly agree with, he is strongly emphasizing the emergence of HTML5 as the technology that will drive application development in the future.  On this point, I’m not ready to throw my FlexBuilder, Visual Studio, Eclipse and Android SDK development environments in the dust bin just yet.  Forget about scrapping my Notepad++ or Oxygen environments, these are keepers for the long, long term.

Yeah, HTML5 definitely has much promise:  Canvas alone is just cool.  I’ve seen some really interesting things done with this, and it can only get better from there.  Yet one cool enhancement for a browser isn’t enough to keep my attention long term, nor is it a game-changer that will revolutionize how users interact with application interfaces. 

So what kinds of things will keep me saying, “you had me at hello.”?   The big deal for me is looking at the world through the publishing industry’s collective eye:  Many of the big publishers are in the midst of what can considered a paradigmatic shift – while print will still be a prominent part of their business model, it won’t be the dominant model.  This is a significant change.  Publishers will transform themselves from content designers to media conduits

OK, so how what will HTML5 need to have to be compelling for publishers to adopt it?  I see three things, all of which are requirements for the browser vendors to reconcile:

  1. Media Codec Standardization
  2. Support other key technical standards (EPUB, MathML, etc.)
  3. Form-factor scaling

Media Codec Standardization

Right now, there are myriad of audio and video standards like H.264, Ogg (Theora for audio; Vorbis for video), MP3, Speex, AAC, WAV, and so on and on and on.  The problem is that none of the current browsers support a common set of these, and even when they do support them, their support varies.  Until they figure that out, HTML5 will not be able to leverage its full capability and publishers will be reluctant to adopt it.


Native Support for other Standards

OK, this one is a big, huge stretch and probably not going to happen anytime really soon.  Well, OK.  Ever. That said, these are the types of challenges that publishers have to face currently as well as going forward.  EPUB is the biggest stretch only because it leverages HTML (and ZIP compression) anyway, but the capability to embed EPUB in an HTML container would be a big win.  Yet for technical publishers, i.e., engineering, science and math publishers,  there hasn’t been a good solution for displaying all manner of math equations in browsers – they’ve had to rely on either transforming the equation to a raster image (and only recently to vector images like SVG) or rely on plugins to render the equation.  More recently, we’ve seen developments like MathJAX ( that rely on Javascript libraries to consume LaTeX scripts and display equations.  A bit better, but not quite as elegant as leveraging structural markup. 

The bottom line is that this requirement is probably more of a “nice to have,” but for STM publishers, its key to their business. 

Form Factor

This is probably the most significant limitation today.  It would be one thing if all applications/browsers were bound to desktops and laptops.  The reality is that mobile devices, all of which have different dimensions ranging from relatively small smart phones to now tablets means that application interfaces have added challenges to support these different form factors.  Today, I would be hard-pressed to recommend HTML5 UI libraries over native mobile OS UI controls. 

The Future

Will HTML5 become the preeminent technology platform? My magic 8-ball on my smart phone says “Ask again later…”  This resonates the same for me.  I’m hopeful that HTML5 can live up to the promise and can become the common technology platform for all applications.  But right now, there’s just too many holes in the various browser engines to make it practical.  Don’t expect browser vendors to patch these holes quickly.  In the meantime, several factors will impede HTML5 adoption:  Flash, warts and all, is still largely ubiquitous.  Its influence is slowly diminishing, but it won’t go away anytime soon.  In addition, Javascript libraries like JQuery, YUI and Dojo are maturing, but I think we’ll need to see how they shake out over time.  I’ll defer to Javascript experts to tell me which of these will become integral for HTML5 applications.

Lastly, HTML5 won’t be promoted to true standard status for another 10 – 11 years.  This is a lifetime, almost an epoch, for technology.  Lots can happen in that time.  It’s hard to predict right now what emerging technologies will come along that will impact content and media, but chances are something will.

Update (7/23/2011 05:08 PM MST):  Even more articles are coming out suggesting HTML5 will be a boom industry (see  Could be real, but could be a bubble.  I’m not convinced yet that browsers are up to the task – yet.