In October 2014, some 25 years after Tim Berners-Lee first sketched the outline of what would become the World Wide Web in 1989, the W3C HTML Working Group voted to pass the final “Recommendation” of the Open Web Platform standard known as HTML5. Five releases in 25 years is not a fast pace of evolution by today’s software standards, especially when you consider that the predecessor standard, HTML4 (HTML 4.01), was released in 1999.
OK, that is not totally fair, because the standardization process moved more quickly earlier and gave us HTML2 in 1994 under the aegis of the IETF, and HTML3.2 in 1997 under the W3C. What is fair to say is that HTML5 has had a fitful and somewhat tortuous path, and in its current state, two competing standards bodies appear to define it: the W3C (which is focused on the “snapshot” standard), and WHATWG (which is focused on the “living standard”).
None of this should take anything away from the importance of HTML5, because it plays an incredible power-balancing role in the industry. HTML5 is the industry’s key insurance policy against total subjugation of computing by a dominant oligopoly of platform vendors. That is, HTML5 bestows strategic safety and a semblance of control to all vendors and enterprises—the rest of us. HTML5 is the only cross-platform human-machine interaction technology managed and evolved by a broad and open industry-consensus process. It is a miracle that we have arrived at a standard. (Well, almost one standard.)
The finalization of HTML5 is of minor relevance to everyday developers, but it is one of several trends that sets up 2015 as a pivotal year for adoption:
Interoperability and patent assurances. A final version of the HTML5 standard is important for certain enterprises and vendors that depend on interoperability guarantees bestowed by such standards. It also provides patent protections to those implementing the technology. HTML5 is an expansive and complex set of technologies with contributions from many players. The standard’s finality confers the rights for compliance with this standard without being sued.
HTML5 tools suck, but are improving. The key issue hindering HTML5 today is the availability of capable tools and skills needed to use this expansive technology effectively. We are far from where deep HTML5 skills or tools are available in the market to the same degree as Java or .NET, and we may not reach this level until the end of the decade. The arrival of the standard will feed the virtuous cycle of increased adoption and skills growth. Improved editors and debuggers are already beginning to make a dent in making developers more productive.
The HTML5 standard is as much a political triumph as it is a technical triumph. HTML5 holds the promise of a unified set of technologies that can provide skills, code and effort sharing across multiple devices and operating systems from all walks of tech-land. Even if the promise of writing once and running everywhere cannot be realized fully (and it is clear that it cannot), HTML5 can provide time and cost savings by sharing aspects of the code or development effort.
Al Hilwa is program director of application development software research at IDC.