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January 19, 2015 DIGITAL DIVA

What you need to know about HTML5

Christina Davis

Want to impress your techie friends? Ask them what they think of the W3C's recent adoption of HTML5 standards. You're sure to get some tech cred if you drop that into cocktail conversation.

The W3C, which is short for World Wide Web Consortium, is one of the most important governing international bodies you've never heard of. It's basically like the UN of the Internet, setting rules for how the web behaves. Given the fact that such a huge portion of our business and personal lives has moved online, I don't think it's an understatement to say that the W3C has a big impact, even if we don't realize it.

The W3C's most recent decision to support the adoption of standards around HTML5 went relatively unnoticed by those outside the tech world. But it's worth understanding the implications.

HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language, the code that underlies much of the web. HTML5 represents the “5th major revision of the core language of the World Wide Web,” according to the W3C's announcement of the standard's adoption.

For those working on building websites every day, the adoption of HTML5 wasn't necessarily a big deal. At least that was the case for Michael Villa, CEO of Worcester-based Dovetail Internet Technologies.

“The W3C's adoption of HTML5 is not by itself a hugely impactful milestone event,” Villa wrote me in an email. “HTML5 as a standard has been in development and in use for years (albeit not universally or consistently). This step by W3C in many ways is formalizing what the industry has already moved forward with.”

In a follow-up phone conversation, Villa explained that his firm has been using HTML5 for quite some time, but it's only one of his developers' tools. Every site or app development typically entails piecing together a variety of programming options, including things like HTML5, Flash, CSS and Javascript.

Won't work for everyone

The challenge for web developers, according to Villa, is that there are still too many variations in how people are experiencing the web, so one single standard programming language, like HTML5, isn't going to work for everyone.

“You can build a great site all in HTML5 and no one will be able to use it,” he said. “You always take into account your lowest common denominator.”

In particular, Villa is referring to the wide variety of ways people access websites. While there are still some Internet Explorer holdouts, many browsers of the web are now using Firefox and Google Chrome. Add to that the various operating systems employed by different smartphones, and you get a sense of the programmer's dilemma. Unfortunately, there's no one programming tool that works cleanly across all those platforms and browsers — yet. The result? Developers have to use a grab-bag of tools.

Of course, by adopting formal HTML5 standards, the W3C is trying to move the web development world toward a more uniform standard. But the fact is that every platform can pick and choose what standards it wants to use. For example, Flash, a proprietary system from Adobe that enables advanced programming like animations online, does not work on Apple products.

Apple's late former CEO and Svengali Steve Jobs explained Apple's decision not to use Flash on its products in a 2010 open letter. In it, he said his company wanted to use more open standards like HMTL5, CSS and Javascript, rather than Adobe's proprietary Flash. There are those who would quarrel with Jobs' stance — in particular Adobe — but the conflict helps illustrate the challenges to forming uniform standards online, despite the best efforts of groups like the W3C (whose main participants are large companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, by the way).

Another issue: accessibility

Another key component to HTML5 is its emphasis on accessibility, according to Eleanor Loiacono, associate professor of IT at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. A feature on a website built using Flash, for example, can be pretty inaccessible to someone who is blind or deaf. But HTML5 does do “a little bit more to help people” with disabilities, she said.

So, what does all this talk of HTML5 mean for the average business owner? Probably not a lot, according to Villa.

He often sees an HTML5 requirement in requests for proposals (RFPs) for new websites, but after a little scratching on a project's specifications, he often learns that the need for HTML5 is not exclusive. In the end, it ends up being yet another buzzword that gets thrown around by people who really don't understand the technology.

But next time you're in a meeting with your website developer and he or she mentions HTML5, at least now you'll have a little background on the subject.

Christina Davis can be reached at

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