The history of the World Wide Web is very recent, so the web standards are changing. Unfortunately, the changes do not happen as fast as might be expected from such a new medium.
Before discussing html 5, it will be useful to clarify the terminology. Give me one minute, and I promise the sentence “html is a language for writing www pages that are transferred using http over the Internet” will make sense if it has not. The middle section will tell you an interesting tidbit or two about the less-known areas of the Internet in as much time, and the last section will finally explain why html 5 is a good thing.
What is the Web, Anyway?
Let me start with the elusive Internet. It is simply a global network of computers. For the computers to communicate (much like when people want to send a letter) there need to be two things: addresses, and some method of delivery (such as the post office).
The Internet solves these requirements using the Transmission Control Protocol — the delivery system — and Internet Protocol which is the addressing system which assigns a number to every computer. This tcp/ip implementation is what distinguishes the Internet from other networks.
Just as you can use post to send a letter, package or a post card, the Internet is also used for different applications. The World Wide Web of interlinked pages (technically called hypertext documents) is such an application, and it requires a set of rules, Hypertext Transfer Protocol in this case (which is the http part of the address; telling the browser to navigate web pages, rather than, say download a file using a File Transfer Protocol).
The last bit of the puzzle is the html which stands for Hyper Text Markup Language: It is nothing more than a defined way of annotating the text to indicate how it should be displayed and ‘behave’.
Why It’s Not So Easy
There was a big upheaval in 2003 when one of the organizations responsible for registering domains ending in ‘.com’ and ‘.net’ adapted the name resolution so that anyone entering any non-existing (For example as a result of a typo (such as www.microssoft.com).) address would be directed to this registrar’s website instead of issuing an error that the page did not exist.
It is possible to go even further and create a ‘parallel Web.’ Alternative root servers could resolve (Since the computers in the Internet are identified by their ip number, not name; the domain address needs to be translated, or resolved, to the numeric ip address.) the domain name in a way to point your browser to a different address. In fact, such domain name servers do exist, and usually allow additional top-level domains (One of these used to be .biz, and after this was officially introduced by icann, there actually was a situation when the name www.yourcompany.biz could point to different pages depending on the configuration.) that are not sanctioned by icann.
The last issue I will mention is that the available ip addresses are almost used up. In fact, most computers are now “hidden” in corporate or home networks behind a single device (This is a workaround that makes your lives more difficult whether you realize it or not. E.g. when you need your computer to communicate effectively with the computers outside your private network; or especially to reach that computer from the outside.), and do not have a unique address. This is not how the Internet was meant to be though. The solution (An update of the IPv4 protocol, called IPv6.) to this has been around since 1998 but is still largely unused. Every device could truly be in the Internet already now, but the progress is held back.
A very difficult question to answer is: Who is controlling all of the above? That is a tough cookie even if you break it up into individual layers that make up the Internet (the physical wires, the protocols, ip addresses etc.). One important organization, icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, based in California, United States), is responsible for assigning the addresses and top-level domain names (such as .net in soukie.net) and it also maintains key (root) servers that translate the domain names into the ip numeric addresses. But even this area can be quite hazy, as the examples in the box illustrate.
Enter html 5
The above helped me appreciate that defining a new version of the language for writing the web pages and putting it into usage is no simple task. The organization behind this effort is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It is responsible for creating recommendations for the use of Hyper Text Markup Language, Cascading Style Sheets and other standards. “Recommendation” is actually the proper term: it is the final and highest form of defining and enforcing the standard.
While the inherent lack of an overseeing authority on the Internet is good for protecting the freedom, it also causes the frustratingly slow process of defining and adopting improvements: The third version of css has been in the works for eleven years now and the last version of html will turn ten years old this year.
True, in case of the html it is not so disastrous because W3C had been working (The last Recommendation for xhtml was published in 2001. The work on the drafts for the second version was stopped in 2009.) on a variation called xhtml. The main problem with xhtml however is that even the pages written in xhtml are in the vast majority of cases not served and processed as xml, and the few that are cannot be opened in any version of Internet Explorer.
And into this gloom enters the upcoming html 5. For users, the fact that it combines the development of html and xhtml is not of much consequence. But what it also does is it brings video and audio. You might say that video has been on the web for ages (certainly before YouTube) and you would be partially right. But the video was part of the mark up language about as much as if every time you wanted to back up with your car, you had to hand it over to another driver: Until now, all video and audio has been handled via third-party, proprietary plugins.
The new video and audio is not good just for the people who do not feel comfortable depending on Adobe or Microsoft (although I do favor the principle to prevent cornering the users as a result of acquisitions (The acquisition of Macromedia (creators of Flash) is not the prime example. The users were likely hurt more when Adobe acquired PageMaker and FrameMaker, or by Microsoft Business Solutions’ acquisition of all their major offerings (Great Plains, Navision, Axapta).) etc.). html 5 allows playback of audio and video on mobile phones and devices that do not support plugins (cf. iPhone which does not run Flash but supports html 5 media). Plus, the pages can also do more with the playback because they do not give up the control to someone else.
html 5 offers more cool features. There is a drawing element allowing complex user interfaces or flexible multimedia. The documents carry more semantic information, which will allow search engines and browsers to “understand” the function of the parts of the document and deliver a better experience. The web pages can also do more sophisticated actions, including storing data locally and offline functionality.
So when will this become a reality? Some say 2022. It largely depends on the makers of the browsers. I can understand why Microsoft had not included any of the css 3 or html 5 in Internet Explorer 8. But it is not helping to push the envelope. When a major browser waits for standards to reach the stable Recommendation phase, the web designers also hold off using the new features to make sure the pages will work properly for all users. My hope is that given enough experiments, a momentum can be built that will ensure we will see the new face of the web in wide use before the predicted 2022.
If you are interested in using html 5 audio and video on your website, check out the Degradable HTML5 audio and video Plugin.