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30 June 2011, 12:31

The rise and fall and rise of HTML

By Glyn Moody

HTML began life as a clever hack of a pre-existing approach. As Tim Berners-Lee explains in his book, “Weaving the Web”:

Since I knew it would be difficult to encourage the whole world to use a new global information system, I wanted to bring on board every group I could. There was a family of markup languages, the standard generalised markup language (SGML), already preferred by some of the world's top documentation community and at the time considered the only potential document standard among the hypertext community. I developed HTML to look like a member of that family.

One reason why HTML was embraced so quickly was that it was simple – which had important knock-on consequences:

The idea of asking people to write the angle brackets by hand was to me, and I assumed to many, as unacceptable as asking one to prepare a Microsoft Word document by writing out its binary-coded format. But the human readability of HTML was an unexpected boon. To my surprise, people quickly became familiar with the tags and started writing their own HTML documents directly.

Of course, once people discovered how powerful those simple tags could be, they made the logical but flawed deduction that even more tags would make HTML even more powerful. Thus began the first browser wars, with Netscape and Microsoft adding non-standard features in an attempt to trump the other. Instead, they fragmented the HTML standard (remember the blink element and marquee tag?), and probably slowed down the development of the field for years.

Things were made worse by the collapse of Netscape at the end of the 90s, leaving Microsoft as undisputed arbiter of (proprietary) standards. At that time, the web was becoming a central part of life in developed countries, but Microsoft's dominance – and the fact that Internet Explorer 7 only appeared in 2006, a full five years after version 6 – led to a long period of stagnation in the world of HTML.

One of the reasons that the Firefox project was so important was that it re-affirmed the importance of open standards – something that Microsoft's Internet Explorer had rendered moot. With each percentage point that Firefox gained at the expense of that browser, the pressure on Microsoft to conform to those standards grew. The arrival of Google's Chrome, and its rapid uptake, only reinforced this trend.

Eventually Microsoft buckled under the pressure, and has been improving its support of HTML steadily, until today HTML5 support is creeping into Visual Studio, and the company is making statements like the following:

Just four weeks after the release of Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft Corp. unveiled the first platform preview of Internet Explorer 10 at MIX11. In his keynote, Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president of Internet Explorer, outlined how the next version of Microsoft’s industry-leading Web browser builds on the performance breakthroughs and the deep native HTML5 support delivered in Internet Explorer 9. With this investment, Microsoft is leading the adoption of HTML5 with a long-term commitment to the standards process.

“The only native experience of HTML5 on the Web today is on Windows 7 with Internet Explorer 9,” Hachamovitch said. “With Internet Explorer 9, websites can take advantage of the power of modern hardware and a modern operating system and deliver experiences that were not possible a year ago. Internet Explorer 10 will push the boundaries of what developers can do on the Web even further.”

Even if some would quibble with those claims, the fact that Microsoft is even making them is extraordinary given its history here and elsewhere. Of course, there is always the risk that it might attempt to apply its traditional “embrace and extend” approach, but so far there are few hints of that. And even if does stray from the path of pure HTML5, Microsoft has already given that standard a key boost at a time when some saw it as increasingly outdated.

That view was largely driven by the rise of the app, notably on the iPhone and more recently on the iPad. The undeniable popularity of such apps, due in part to their convenience, has led some to suggest that the age of HTML is over, and that apps would become the primary way of interacting with sites online.

Mozilla responded by proposing the idea of an Open Web App Store:

An Open Web App Store should:

  • exclusively host web applications based upon HTML5, CSS, Javascript and other widely-implemented open standards in modern web browsers — to avoid interoperability, portability and lock-in issues
  • ensure that discovery, distribution and fulfillment works across all modern browsers, wherever they run (including on mobile devices)
  • set forth editorial, security and quality review guidelines and processes that are transparent and provide for a level playing field
  • respect individual privacy by not profiling and tracking individual user behavior beyond what’s strictly necessary for distribution and fulfillment
  • be open and accessible to all app producers and app consumers.

As the links to earlier drafts on its home page indicate, HTML5 has been under development for over three years, but it really seems to be taking off now. Some early indications of what it is capable of can be seen in projects to replace browser plugins for PDFs and MP3s with browser-native code.

HTML5 is also at the heart of the FT's new Web App:

Creating an HTML5 app is innovative and breaks new ground – the FT is the first major news publisher to launch an app of this type. There are clear benefits. Firstly, the HTML5 FT Web App means users can see new changes and features immediately. There is no extended release process through an app store and users are always on the latest version.

Secondly, developing multiple ‘native’ apps for various products is logistically and financially unmanageable. By having one core codebase, we can roll the FT app onto multiple platforms at once.

We believe that in many cases, native apps are simply a bridging solution while web technologies catch up and are able to provide the rich user experience demanded on new platforms.

In other words, the FT was fed up paying a hefty whack of its revenue to Apple for the privilege of offering a native app. And if the following rumour is true, the FT is not the only well-known name to see it that way:

Project Spartan is the codename for a new platform Facebook is on verge of launching. It’s entirely HTML5-based and the aim is to reach some 100 million users in a key place: mobile. More specifically, the initial target is both surprising and awesome: mobile Safari.

Yes, Facebook is about to launch a mobile platform aimed squarely at working on the iPhone (and iPad). But it won’t be distributed through the App Store as a native application, it will be entirely HTML5-based and work in Safari. Why? Because it’s the one area of the device that Facebook will be able to control (or mostly control).

Paradoxically, that issue of control is why open standards will always win out. The only way everyone – not just the company controlling the standard – can retain their freedom is by adopting free standards, thereby creating a level playing field. That may not have been Berners-Lee's explicit aim when he crafted HTML, but it's certainly close to his original intentions of creating a global space that everyone could use to share information. It's good to see it re-establishing itself as one of the most exciting technologies in the online world.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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