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HTML 5: An Attempt to Enhance and Improve the Web

February 1, 2008

Masataka Yakura
Front-End Engineer

Since its first draft release on January 22, 2008, the new HTML specification, HTML 5, has attracted considerable attention. But what changes or enhancements does HTML 5 bring when compared with the existing standards such as HTML 4.0 or XHTML 1.0?

From a language for describing documents to a language for configuring the Web

The current release version of HTML, HTML 4.01, was released in December 1999, and since then, XHTML 1.0, a redefinition of HTML using XML, and the modularized XHTML 1.1 have appeared. However, the elements and attributes constituting each format as well as the basic concept of “a simple language for describing documents” remain the same across these specifications. On the other hand, during the same period, the Web has seen major changes.

Take a look at Web design techniques, for example: ten years ago, almost all Web designs used tables for layout, but now, it is becoming common to configure websites using HTML documents that accurately reflect the page structure together with CSS; and these are now considered “Web standards.”

New forms of presentation known as Web applications have also come to be widely used. Web applications have many advantages, including intuitive operations that are in no way inferior to those of desktop applications and the fact that they do not require cumbersome transitioning between pages. These Web applications are the driving force behind a movement called “Web 2.0.”

Traditional HTML has not kept pace with these changes. One of the greatest reasons for this is that the current HTML language lacks the vocabulary for defining page structures or application interfaces. Therefore, in HTML 5.0, an attempt has been made to extend the vocabulary and define a framework for easy manipulation in order to enhance the functionality and flexibility of the Web.

Specification development for higher interoperability

The concepts behind HTML 5 had been in development since 2004, before formal development by W3C began in 2007. The group that pioneered the development was WHAT (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group), formed by browser vendors Apple, Mozilla, and Opera.

There are certain advantages to browser vendors being at the center of standards development: One advantage is that feedback from the implementation side can be iteratively reflected in the standard. Another advantage is that such an initiative can also contribute to increased interoperability among browsers—a lesson learned from past “browser wars.”

Around the year 1997, when HTML 4.0 was developed, Microsoft and Netscape were in a dead heat to expand browser functionality in an attempt to gain supremacy on the Web. This led to many interoperability issues as a proprietary extended function implemented by one party could not be used with the other, and as a result, the promulgation of standards such as CSS and JavaScript suffered major delays.

Promulgation of a technology cannot be achieved by a single organization or software: it is critical to implement an open and stable specification that can be utilized by everyone at the same time.

Understand user requirements and evolve in stages

But collaboration between implementers will not necessarily lead to broad acceptance. Any technology that does not actually consider the users of the product or associated technologies will not gain wide acceptance, regardless of the amount of industry support.

For HTML 5, various researches were performed on existing websites in order to create a specification that incorporates user requirements. For example, a statistical study was conducted on the most frequently used categories of HTML elements, and based on the results, additional vocabularies were included in the new specification. Similarly, unique extensions that had not been incorporated into the standards up until now have been implemented while maintaining interoperability.

Similarly, due consideration has been paid to software that is currently in use, and attempts have been made to implement extensions while carefully maintaining backward compatibility with current browsers.

Indeed, such extension of functions with backward compatibility is often not ideal. However, software instances are not updated all at once, and users will not learn to use the new features immediately; thus, it is important to implement the improvements in small steps.

Path toward completion

HTML 5 is planned to be released in September 2010; however, I feel that there will be some inevitable delay, given the current implementation status and the degree of completion of the specification. In addition, the actual promulgation of the standard will only come a little later than that, until after users have understood the standard.

Nonetheless, we will continue to periodically cover the trends surrounding HTML 5 on the Web Standards Blog. We are also translating related documents in order to have relevant information in Japanese widely available.

At Mitsue-Links, we will continue to undertake various initiatives in relation to Web standards.