HTML5, the latest version of the HTML web mark-up language, promises to provide businesses with powerful, cross-platform tools for their web and mobile applications, and give developers an alternative to Adobe’s more popular Flash environment.

It is not yet the complete product. HTML5 recently faced criticism for being difficult to write code with; having inconsistent support for audio file formats; and containing debugging inadequacies, with errors being allowed to go through to the run-time stage instead of being caught at compiler level.

Nevertheless, being an open standard, many parties can and do work to improve HTML5’s feature-set and functionality. It also has some heavyweight industry backers which include Microsoft, Google, Apple, Adobe, Amazon, SAP and Facebook.

Another major supporter is Intel, which has committed to ensure the success of HTML5 as an open standard, enabling developers to build applications that can be written once but run on multiple platforms, particularly mobile ones.

Intel argues that, at the moment, software developers have a tough choice when it comes to web application tools and environments. They can create highly innovative and interactive apps, but they might only work well on a few devices for which they are optimised. Or, they could cater for a broader spectrum of devices, but not have the same level of quality or functionality in their apps.

However, says Intel, by standardising on HTML5, they can have the best of both worlds and develop powerful apps that run across a broad range of devices.

Write once run anywhere

Introduced in 1990, HTML was created with just this in mind, to give software developers an open development ecosystem with which to write code that will run across multiple environments and devices. From a business perspective, this gives HTML5 apps a broad market reach.

The range of computers that support HTML5 include devices based on Apple iOS, Google Android, Microsoft Windows and the open source Tizen platform, among others. The standard itself supports both desktops and mobiles, and many features of HTML5 have been built to run on low-powered devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Work is also underway to enable HTML5 apps to run on multicore processors, with the aim of making web-based applications faster and more powerful. Mozilla is working with Intel, for example, on a project called River Trail, which aims to provide data-parallelism for web applications.

The project will eventually lead to Firefox browsers incorporating River Trail technology, enabling browser-based HTML5/JavaScript code to run considerably faster on dual and quad-core chips. This is significant because desktops and smartphones are beginning to standardise on dual-core processors, as single-core chips no longer provide the computing resources that users demand.

New features

Many of the new features incorporated into HTML5 are designed to support multimedia and more complex and interactive applications.

For multimedia, HTML5 has many new ‘syntactic’ features such as the [video], [audio] and [canvas] elements, as well as integration for scalable vector graphics (SVG) content, and ‘MathML’ for mathematical formulae.

There are also new facilities to provide browser-based offline storage, which means information is not stored on the server, but on the client device. Other features are geolocation, where apps make use of the real time location details of the user; and touch-screen support. HTML5 also has advanced graphical features such as shadows and gradients, which are features of Cascading Style Sheets 3 (CSS3), which is incorporated into HTML5.

Tools such as these are designed to make it easier to include and handle multimedia and graphical content on the web without having to resort to proprietary plugins and APIs. As a result, HTML5 has become more of an application development ‘one-stop shop’ than previous versions of the language.

HTML5 also has many new granular features designed to make life easier for developers, and limit the amount of JavaScript they have to write. JavaScript has traditionally been used to boost the functions of HTML-based programs.

One of the main areas of improvement has been around validation, which is now done within the browser. HTML5 incorporates new validation features such as mandatory checking, type checking, range and field length validation, and although validation can also be carried out at the server side, this level of code inspection can make applications more robust.

Strong alternative

With HTML5, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops the language, is aiming to provide a strong alternative to other web and mobile development environments such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, as well as proprietary platforms and plug-ins.

At the moment, Flash is ubiquitous in the browser, but moving forward, HTML5 may gain widespread adoption, particularly when considering the weight of support it has from the large IT suppliers.

The move towards HTML5 adoption has been led by search engines and social networks, with Facebook notably using HTML5 to build its Facebook apps. The company says the language gives it flexibility. Facebook’s innovative use of HTML5 apps could pave the way for corporates looking to support mobile users with line of business applications.

There are also signs that the competitive landscape is changing. In August 2011, Adobe surprised the web development community by releasing a preview of a Rich Internet Applications (RIA) tool, called Edge, which featured HTML5, as well as CSS and JavaScript. Adobe argued that there are some cases where Adobe users could make use of web standard as an alternative to Flash, and this was seen by some analysts as a coup for HTML5. As for Microsoft Silverlight, this appears to be waning in popularity as a rival technology, despite its integration with the Visual Studio development platform.

However, it may be a long road to mainstream adoption. The W3C plans to release a ‘stable HTML5 recommendation’ by the end of 2014, and an HTML 5.1 ‘specification recommendation’ by the end of 2016.

This conservative roadmap may have helped fuel the latest Gartner Hype Cycle Report, which states that HTML5 is not yet ready, and is five to 10 years away from being a legitimate business tool.

The ever increasing pace of technical change and backing from the likes of Microsoft, Intel, Facebook and Google could mean that HTML5 may, in reality, dominate the browser landscape more quickly than Gartner anticipates.