The pace of implementation of HTML5 standards has progressed stunningly fast relative to prior standards efforts, as a magical and convenient alignment of interests from all the important vendors has ensued. Web developers are therefore asking, “When will users be ready for HTML5 websites?”

The open-sourcing of WebKit in 2005 by Apple, two years after it introduced the Safari browser (which was based on the KDE project’s open-source technology), was a key catalyst for the HTML5 standard. Releasing the iPhone in 2007 unleashed a scramble among other mobile players to match its browser prowess.

Android, Palm (then vendor of WebOS) and Nokia leveraged WebKit directly, and RIM bought the WebKit-based Torch browser for its BlackBerry devices. Today, five of the six top smartphone application platforms, which account for more than 90% of smartphone sales, use WebKit-based browsers in their platforms. The exception is Microsoft, which uses its IE technology in Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7. By the end of 2011, Microsoft is expected to ship an HTML5-capable browser, along with its next revision of the phone platform (codenamed Mango).

The commonality of the HTML implementation in the two major Web-browsing smartphone platforms, iOS and Android, significantly catalyzed and accelerated the progress of HTML5 standards. By 2012, all new smartphones shipped will sport HTML5-capable browsers.

WebKit has also impacted HTML5 on the desktop. In 2008, when Google entered the browser space, it leveraged WebKit as the core engine for its Chrome browser. Google’s success in building Chrome adoption through promotion on its search engine, as well as the resurgence in Macintosh sales in recent years, has put WebKit on the map as a significant player on the desktop.

By the end of 2011, IDC expects that WebKit-based desktop browsers will cross the 20% threshold. The growth of WebKit and the accelerated introduction of HTML5 features into production browsers from Apple and Google have also had an effect on the development of HTML5 in non-WebKit browsers.

Mozilla has always been a standards-oriented company; however, the high level of HTML5 support in Google Chrome led Firefox to follow suit and enhance the level of HTML5 support and performance. When Firefox 4 was released in April, it sported hardware-accelerated HTML5 support, scoring world-record paces of downloads.

Microsoft, which by mid-decade began to adjust to competitive pressures and early market share gains by Firefox, released IE7 in 2006 after a five-year hiatus in major browser versions. IE8 shipped in 2008 with no HTML5 capabilities, but with IE9, Microsoft began to talk about HTML5 support as early as March 2010. Initially, Microsoft’s level of HTML5 support in IE9 lacked the key Canvas feature which allowed HTML5 to support rich graphical websites and applications.

However, Microsoft made a complete pivot on HTML5 support at its PDC conference last September when it released beta code of IE9 with thorough HTML5 support. Last month, IE9 was released, sporting not only strong HTML5 support, but also deep hardware acceleration capabilities, allowing the browser to perform very competitively.

Both Mozilla and Microsoft have made adjustments to their development cycles to respond to Google’s rapid-fire Chrome releases. The net result of all the intensified R&D in browsers is that users can now enjoy true choice, plus unprecedented improvements in usability, performance and standards support, no matter which of the major browsers they use.

The pace of HTML5 adoption
What stands in the way of HTML5 developer nirvana today is the amount of desktops and mobile devices in circulation that are running older browsers. IDC believes that HTML5 adoption will move more rapidly for websites designed to be browsed by mobile devices rather than for those intended for desktops.

The typical refresh rates of two to three years in mobile devices means that the penalty such websites pay in missing users or running dual Web pages will be short-lived. Bigger issues are the upgrade cycles for PCs, which tend to live longer than mobile devices at home, and enterprise browser standards that might continue to mandate older browsers for some time. Thus, HTML5 adoption may lag for websites targeting desktop users by an additional two years compared with mobile sites.

Nevertheless, the big HTML5 transition has started and a number of websites have already emerged that require HTML5-capable browsers. IDC expects the majority of website developers will take advantage of HTML5 features by 2014. Along with building traditional websites, HTML5 will be more immediately put to use in building a category of mobile apps that target multiple mobile platforms or that does not require the specialized platform capabilities.

So, if you are a developer, it is indeed a fine time to start playing with HTML5 and to build that into your skills portfolio.

Al Hilwa is program director of application development software at IDC.