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HTML 5: Its impact on the future of web design and development

Alex Christie

8 July 2009

The fundamental core of web design is due to be shaken up, when HTML 5.0 and Xhtml 2.0 are released. It’s a very interesting time for web designers, especially when two of the fundamental tools used by front-end developers are to be given a major upgrade or reinvention in the upcoming months or years. Not to forget the progress being made on the CSS3 front, that promises more advanced layout and styling techniques such as having multiple background images within a single container element instead of the existing rule that only permits one per element. Or the ability to define your own rules or margins anywhere on the screen and to align any element to these self positioned rules.

To be honest it is about time that HTML was brought into the modern era. When the current version of HTML (HTML 4.0) was released over 10 years ago on 18th December 1997. Internet Explorer 4 had only just been released 3 months prior. In the same year saw the release of  “The Drugs don’t work” (The Verve), “MMBop” ( Hanson),  and which saw the tragic and historical events of the death of Diana (Princess of Wales), and the year Tony Blair was first appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

There will be two competing languages vying for the top spot. HTML 5.0 and Xhtml 2.0. For those outside the web design/developer world,  XHTML (EXtensible HyperText Markup Language) is:

  • … almost identical to HTML 4.01
  • XHTML is a stricter and cleaner version of HTML
  • XHTML is HTML defined as an XML application
  • XHTML is a W3C Recommendation

(definition from w3schools)

So what is similar between the two competing standards?

The main concensus agreed by both standards is for the removal of all presentational elements, as this should be handled via stylesheets. This is to once and for all, completely separate presentation styling from content. Examples of elements getting the chop are <tt>, <strike>, <u>, <basefont> and <font>. XHTML 2.0 goes even further by removing <small>, <b>, <i> and <hr> elements.

Both standards will have new elements for navigation lists: <nl> for XHTML 2.0  and  a <nav> element for HTML 5.0. XHTML 2.0 has the better proposed navigation markup solution from the examples I have seen, as it is simple and requires far less markup, making it a far more elegant solution.

Both standards aim to use less scripting in forms and include new features to make them far more robust and consistent.

Both standards embrace the often discussed topic of a ‘Semantic Web’ with both arms, by offering developers the ability to embed richer metadata into their documents. XHTML 2.0 approaches this through a Metainformation Attribute  Module with the ability to define the given meaning of an element in relation to the context in which it appears. While HTML 5.0 offers a more simple approach by offering a  list of classes that can be used to describe particular elements e.g. copyright, error, example and note.

So what are the main differences between HTML 5.0 and XHTML 2.0?

Well for a start Xhtml 2.0 has taken the bold step and made itself non-backwards compatible with both the existing HTML 4.0 and XHTML 1.0 standards (unlike with HTML 5.0), and has set its sights on being far more revolutionary. This is in stark contrast to the pragmatic approach taken by HTML 5, which aims to be more of an evolutionary technology. HTML 5.0 will mostly support the current HTML and XHTML standards, but will contain a host of new changes and offer far more extensions to work with. It also aims to correct the faults found in the current HTML/XHTML specifications.

HTML 5.0 also offers a wide range features that have no counterpart in XHTML 2.0, in particular when it comes to APIs. One of the main intentions of HTML 5.0 is to be more Web Application focused, rather than being solely a document markup language.

HTML 5.0 and  APIs

I read an interesting article recently titled: HTML 5: Could kill Flash and Silverlight? it raises many interesting points about the potential impact HTML 5.0 could have on the web.

“One of HTML 5′s goals is to move the Web away from proprietary technologies such as Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX, says Ian Hickson, co-editor of the HTML 5 specification. (Hickson is a Google employee, while his co-editor David Hyatt works for Apple.)”

“Essentially, what it does is lays the groundwork to have equivalent functionality that Flash or Silverlight provides,” says RedMonk analyst Michael Cote.

But the article also highlights the benefits that having proprietary add-ons bring. In particular the fact that HTML 5 will still  be in its infancy so won’t be able to initially offer the same content rich experiences that are currently available from the likes of Flash and Silverlight.

The development if HTML 5.0 also leads to some major players being left in an awkward position. Microsoft being one.  “The company has heavy investments in trying to propel Silverlight to dominance. “That’s a big elephant in the room for them because you can imagine the Silverlight team [whose] whole existence is to add [this] functionality in. [But] if Internet Explorer puts it already in there, why do we have Silverlight?” says Dion Almaer, co-founder of the Ajaxian Web site and co-director of developer tools at Mozilla.

“Google may also face some touchy decisions. For example, its YouTube subsidiary uses Flash for its video, but the inclusion of HTML 5 capabilities in browsers might cause YouTube to rethink that decision, notes Fette. ‘It’s a cost/benefit analysis that they’d need to make.’”

Unfortunately the two horse race has seen an unexpected twist. The XHTML 2.0 Working Group decided on the 2nd July 2009 to halt development of the XHTML 2.0 Standard. By freeing up some extra “resources in the Working Group, W3C hopes to accelerate the progress of HTML 5 and clarify W3C’s position regarding the future of HTML.”  (W3C 2009).

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