What you should know about HTML5 today

If you teach online journalism, you’ve probably been hearing questions from students about the validity of what they are learning today. If you’re teaching Web design for current standards and current browsers, they are asking, “What about HTML5 and CSS3?” If you’re teaching Flash, they are asking whether HTML5 will be a “Flash killer.” And you are probably wondering how soon you will need to update all your assignments and teaching materials.

Me too! So I’ve been out there scouring the blogs and the trade press for information.

I’ve concluded that HTML5 and the future of Web design must be considered by category, because each one of these will be affected differently:

  • Video
  • Mobile and handheld devices
  • General Web design

But first, let’s consider the timeline for HTML5.

When will HTML5 be here?

According to Philippe Le Hégaret, of the Worldwide Web Consortium, “I don’t expect to see full implementation of HTML5 across all the major browsers until the end of 2011 at least.” (Reported at Webmonkey, Nov. 17, 2009.)

Dublin-based software developer Devon O. Wolfgang writes: “HTML5 is barely out the door in beta form and is already being implemented differently on different browsers. Eventually (2012, 2014, or maybe not even until 2022, according to various sources), HTML5 might just settle down and assume a lowest common denominator standardization across most, if not all, browsers. … HTML5 is still at least 2 years from being implemented in a widely usable fashion.” (Posted January 31, 2010.)

So if all you’re worried about right now is your syllabus for fall 2010 — relax. Change is slow, and when we teach Web design, we need to focus primarily on the browsers and platforms currently in use.

I’m going to wait until I see a whole lot more green boxes in the “Elements” table on this Wikipedia chart page before I start worrying about teaching HTML5 in depth.

For now, I think it’s important to show Web design students how the standard will change, and have a discussion about why. Here are two good, clear resources that will help you have that discussion:

Video and HTML5

This is at the heart of current screaming and backstabbing between Adobe and Apple. Most video seen on the Web today is served up via the Flash Player. Apple has declared that Flash is bad because it makes the Safari Web browser crash. The Safari Web browser is the only Web browser that can be used on the iPhone and on the iPad.

It is ironic that much of this argument is tied to HTML5 and open standards when what is preventing Flash from running on the iPhone and the iPad is Apple’s refusal to embrace an open standard for experiencing the Web on those two devices. I mean, the Firefox and Opera browsers can’t appear on the iPhone or the iPad. The Safari Web browser is made by Apple. On the iPhone and the iPad, the Safari browser blocks the Flash Player plugin. (Update: The free “Opera Mini” browser for iPhone made its debut in the App Store on April 13.)

Please note, I am not disputing Apple’s claims about Flash. I’m sure Flash does make the Safari browser crash. Sometimes it makes Firefox crash — on my MacBook Pro (which I love, I might mention). On occasion, Flash probably makes Firefox crash on my Windows XP computer at the office.

But I watch a heck of a lot of video online, on all kinds of Web sites (not only YouTube), and Firefox really does not crash very often. Maybe once a week or less. And, as you might imagine, I’m online pretty much every waking minute of the day. I probably spend at least five hours a day online on my MacBook Pro (like now, while I am writing this) in Firefox. And I also view and use a lot of Web-embedded Flash interactives. I’m just sayin’.

For an overview of the video issues surrounding HTML5 (apart from Apple and Adobe, the video issues involve Google and Microsoft as well), please see the 22-slide PowerPoint I posted yesterday.

Canvas, the other ‘Flash killer’ in HTML5

Video is really the big stake in all this shouting and posturing about HTML5 and its potential for “killing Flash.” A much smaller and quieter discussion is taking place about the myriad other capabilities of Flash — the authoring application, not merely the Player or plugin for Web browsers.

Last week I posted 7 examples of exceptional Flash packages. Those seven examples indicate a range of what authoring in the Flash application makes possible. Note that I said “range” — I’d like to emphasize that it’s a pretty broad range. Then, if you’re really interested, you could have a little browse through an earlier post here, 21 examples of Flash journalism.

There are people who argue that one day you will be able to make all those packages and interactives without Flash, using the <canvas> element in HTML5.

I have serious doubts about that.

I think HTML5 and the <canvas> element will make it possible to create some interactive graphics, photo galleries, and other simple visual packages — without Flash. There are already functional examples of things like this that are constructed primarily with JavaScript code and no Flash at all. (See Using the Canvas, published by Apple, for a clear and brief introduction to the way <canvas> works.) But note that <canvas> does (currently) require significant JavaScript to do anything at all. Someone might one day build an application to spawn the code underneath a drawing or animation interface, relieving authors from the need to write boatloads of code just to slide a freaking photo across the stage. But then, that would be … like Flash.

Jeremy Allaire, founder and CEO of Brightcove, wrote about this in a column published at TechCrunch:

There [is] … a class of Web Productivity Apps where Flash is the preferred runtime, especially those that involve working with and manipulating media such as images, audio and video. We, like many companies, are pragmatic and use both Flash and HTML as the technology needs require. Other examples of this include rich data visualization applications, where Flash has gained prominence …

Rich Media Apps … include largely consumer-facing, audience and media centric experiences. In particular, this includes online video, rich media advertising and marketing, and online games (casual games). … Here, Flash is dominant. … It seems unlikely that HTML5 would be at all positioned to replace Flash for these categories, though it is clearly worth watching how consistent rich media runtimes find their way into the HTML5+ standard. Right now, it is a non starter. (Posted Feb. 5, 2010. Boldface added.)

Note that Allaire is referring to exactly the kinds of in-depth packages we use in journalism — the kinds highlighted in my post 7 examples of exceptional Flash packages.

Update (6:38 p.m.): In a post about Adobe’s new CS5 line, ReadWriteWeb reported, “A tool in the new suite will allow for easy import of Flash animations into HTML5 Canvas code. Once IE9 launches, all major browsers will support Canvas.” Thanks to @dansinker for the tip!


I’m a huge fan of Flash, although I readily admit that it is not perfect — and Adobe has favored Windows in all its development efforts in recent years (not only for Flash, but for its industry standard products Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign too).

I’m also a huge fan of several Apple products, including the iPhone and the MacBook Pro.

On top of that, I strongly support open source efforts (including HTML5), open standards, and a steady movement away from the proprietary messes in which large corporations such as Microsoft have mired us, the users and producers.

But there is no open-source iPhone, and there is no open-source Flash. And the claim that H.264 video is open is plainly incorrect.

20 Comments on “What you should know about HTML5 today

  1. I don’t love Flash since they changed English to Chinese with AS3, and put it on the Adobe “Let’s update it every 18 months whether it needs it or not so we can make a boatload more money” Upgrade Plan.

    But for a media company to ignore the fact that not only iPad, but iPhone and iPod Touch don’t support flash player video is short-sighted. I’ve come across several sites recently on my iPod Touch, and I couldn’t watch their content (startribune.com, for instance).

  2. Thanks for the update, Greg!

    Bryan: I did not love ActionScript 3.0 when I started learning it a year ago. Now, on the other side of the learning “hump,” I’m a fan.

  3. Flash doesn’t run on the iPhone, granted. But name a phone than actually runs it today? Not one. In spite of Adobe’s promises made two years ago…

  4. Thanks for this. I produce a simple slideshow Flash cartoon for which Flash is the perfect authoring tool. Each cartoon is about 20 slides, and I update three times a week.

    I looked into the Javascript library (JQuery, MooTools) slideshow methods, and it’s just not comparable to working in Flash. The number of files I would have to manage makes it not feasible, plus the total file size would go way up. This is going in the wrong direction.


  5. I’ve seen this phrase before in other contexts:

    “On the iPhone and the iPad, the Safari browser blocks the Flash Player plugin.”

    Other people may say “ban” instead of “blocks.”

    This is technically and structurally incorrect, even though I don’t necessarily agree with Apple’s position.

    The Mobile Safari browser in the iPhone OS has no option for any plug-ins. It’s 100-percent controlled by Apple, which, as you note, doesn’t allow full-fledged alternatives. Opera gets away with its browser by offloading non-native processing to server and then returning the results.

    So Apple doesn’t block the plug-in; it doesn’t allow the installations of plug-ins at all. It tries to provide native functionality.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying about open standards, by the way. Flash is not an open standard as such, in the way that Adobe published, say, the PDF specification and didn’t make claims to any intellectual property to prevent others (including Apple) from creating compatible PDF readers and authoring tools.

    To echo #4 above, there are a handful of phones that run limited or older versions of Flash. None of the major smartphone platforms in the US currently offer Flash. The 10.1 release, when out of beta, is promised for Android, Windows Phone 7, and so on, but that remains to be seen.

  6. The stability of the Flash Player in Safari is part of the broader issue of the stability of the Flash Player plugin in all Mac browsers — Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera alike. Chrome attempts to deal with this to some success by running a discrete instance of the Flash Player for each tab. The next iteration of Safari will have similar functionality. When the Flash Player inevitably crashes in the tab running YouTube, you get to continue browsing in the other tabs without having to restart the browser.

    There are two arguably larger problems looming with respect to the future of the Flash platform.

    First, touch user interfaces are only going to increase in prevalence. Mouse and keyboard aren’t going away anytime soon, but the writing is on the wall. The future of the web is mobile, and touch is how we will interact with these devices, whether the device is running iPhone OS, Android, or Windows 7 Mobile.

    Yes, there is a mountain of Flash content out there that we’d all love to see on our mobile devices. Unfortunately, the bulk of these Flash run times were developed with mouse and keyboard in mind. Granted, a lot of the language of click and drag translates to touch, but it’s not a perfect analogy. Flash interactives often rely heavily on hover events for visual feedback, and a touch interface takes this away from interaction designers. The reality is that a lot of these interfaces just won’t translate gracefully to a touch screen.

    The second issue is also related to the migration of web traffic to mobile devices. Today’s Flash Player is a system resource hog like you wouldn’t believe. All you have to do to see this in action is fire up Hulu in Firefox on your MacBook Pro and listen to the CPU fans spin up in agony. The Flash plugin’s resource consumption is at best an annoyance on a desktop or laptop with a high-powered processor and ample memory resources. On a mobile device that lives and dies by regulating its limited processing and memory resources in order to conserve battery life, the Flash Player is a disaster.

    Until Adobe addresses these issues, I am confident that we will continue to see interactive development move away from the Flash platform.

  7. @Glenn Fleishman – Thanks for the comment.

    You’re right, Adobe has promised a lot out of Flash Player 10.1. It remains to be seen what kind of improvements might be functional. Flash Lite (an optimized implementation of the Flash runtime for mobile phones and such) has apparently failed to impress.

    I’m not saying Adobe is an angel in all this. And Flash is definitely NOT an open standard.

    As a MacBook user, I’m very annoyed that I cannot produce a fully functioning PDF from MS Word, even if I use Acrobat Professional in the CS4 package. That might be Adobe’s fault. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because Apple’s hardware is inaccessible.

    I’ve heard that CPU spinning on my MacBook, when the Flash Player is open. But guess what? I have a $300 Windows netbook, and it runs Flash without spinning, without being a CPU hog. Is that Adobe’s fault? Or Apple’s fault?

    “Ban” or “block” — either way, there’s no Flash on my phone. But you’re correct — that’s true for other smart phones too.

  8. @Danny DeBelius – Thanks for the comment.

    I think the gesture stuff on my iPhone is very cool. I have this one game called Karuki that I really love.

    I agree 100 percent that Adobe needs to get under the hood and optimize performance. However, everyone should read Jan Ozer’s post reporting on performance tests:

    “Flash is efficient on platforms where it can access hardware acceleration and less efficient where it can’t. With Flash Player 10.1, Flash has the opportunity for a true leap in video playback performance on all platforms that enable hardware acceleration.”

  9. Mindy,

    Part of the reason that your netbook handles the Flash Player better than your MacBook is that Windows allows browser plugins access to high-level system APIs related to the graphics card, so the player can use the graphics card’s resources in rendering video.

    Apple has elected not to allow browser plugins to access those resources on OS X.

    That’s just part of the problem though. You’ll notice that while the Flash Player chokes your MacBook, there are other video playback applications that seem to handle the task just fine without pegging the CPU.

    The bigger problem is that Adobe has given so little attention to the OS X version of the Flash Player compared to its Windows counterpart, as is the case with most of their product line these days.

    More on this from John Gruber: http://daringfireball.net/2010/02/flash_hardware_acceleration

  10. Oops… walked away from that last reply for awhile and only saw your most recent comment after I’d posted it. Incidentally, do you allow a set of HTML tags in your comments?

  11. Danny: Yes, you can hand-code an A HREF. I have been following Daring Fireball. There’s good info there, but sometimes the bias is laid on a bit thick!

  12. Two comments for Glenn Fleishman (#6):

    > Flash is not an open standard as such, in the way that Adobe published, say, the PDF specification and didn’t make claims to any intellectual property to prevent others (including Apple) from creating compatible PDF readers and authoring tools.

    Nope, Flash and PDF are open to roughly the same extent. The specification for SWF is freely available, and no terms are attached that prevent anyone from making their own player or authoring tool. (Flash is encumbered by IP, but only in the sense that it implements things like MP3.)

    > there are a handful of phones that run limited or older versions of Flash

    About 1.2 billion phones worldwide. Rather large handful. 😉

    Finally for Mindy: the ReadWriteWeb video you referenced in your update is showing what Adobe called a sneak-peak of possible future technology. They’ve clarified that it is not a feature in CS5.

  13. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Understanding the canvas in HTML5

  14. Thanks for a very good article, but I would like to offer a contrary point of view. Certainly parts of HTML5 are far from being ready for use (Forms for example). But with a little JavaScript and writing CSS that “Cascades” properly, the important parts of CSS3 and HTML5 can be retrofitted to older browsers.

    For the features they can’t handle, “Progressive Development” where its okay for your web site to look different in IE6 than it does in Chrome is okay and more and more people are bracing that concept.

    This article is what do we teach today? You should be teaching people to use , , and tags. You should be teaching them how to use rounded corners and gracefully fall back to squares for older browsers.

    For video, teach both ways. Expose them to canvas so that we can start turning those primitives into something that can be easier to use.

    Its sad about the Flash vs. Apple debate but it has little to do with what we teach today. I say its time for more people to build HTML5 pages and our students need to learn it.

  15. >Someone might one day build an application to spawn the code underneath a drawing or animation interface, relieving authors from the need to write boatloads of code just to slide a freaking photo across the stage. But then, that would be … like Flash.


    Exactly. There is no reason that the same tools — the flash development environment you are familiar with — can’t output an HTML5 package. Then Web users won’t have to deal with the slow, buggy Flash run-time environment, Flash designers won’t have to learn more complex programming techniques, and the Web won’t depend on a spec controlled by one company.

    And that is what Steve Jobs has been pushing Adobe to do. If you doubt it, re-read the last paragraph of his letter.

  16. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Video for HTML5: The latest update

  17. I had felt disappointed when I never got a reply from Adobe about renewing Flash player for my old Windows 98 system – I feel that no business ‘entity’ – whether it be ENRON, BP, or Adobe should ever make transactions without ‘eyecontact’ with its consumers – or else it would be extortionism and arrogance towards the plight of ‘small people’ that are after all not that ‘small’ either !
    Flash too may end up as the ‘flash’ of an old camera .
    Open Source developers must needs wake up and work out ways so that new ideas are not just abused and swallowed up.
    BTW Adobe Flash appears to have been used by hackers that had caused problems on my system.
    All people must have the right to look for fool-proof systems that do not end up into the hands of extortionists, hackers or even ‘hosters’ ( as facebook ) that steal all our information and inventiveness, cold and cynical, – without even a blink of the eye …….
    Wake up Open Source !!!!!

  18. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Tips for HTML5, part 4: New tags

  19. Pingback: This Week in Review: News talk and tips at ASNE, iPad’s ‘walled garden,’ and news execs look for revenue | Mark Coddington

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