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HTML5 specification finalized as work continues on the next chapter in web standards

HTML5 specification finalized as work continues on the next chapter in web standards


The spec is feature complete, but is it enough to slow the move away from web apps?

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HTML5 Logo

Today, the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) is announcing that it’s completed its three-year quest to finalize the HTML5 specification. As the W3C says in its press release, "HTML5 is the cornerstone of the Open Web Platform," the cross-platform programming environment usually referred to by the umbrella term "web standards." HTML5 and related technologies like JavaScript and CSS provide a way to write rich web applications designed to run on any device that follows the specifications, and many companies are hitching their futures to the platform’s success. But despite the fact that the specification is now feature complete, meaning nothing more will be added to it, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before HTML5 reaches the finish line in 2014, and there are unanswered questions about how the group plans to deal with video, an essential part of the web that has yet to see any clear resolution.

Because stakeholders now have a final draft of the spec, everyone is on the same page

Since the HTML5 specification is now complete, browser vendors now have a stable target to write for. Before the specification makes it to Recommendation in 2014 — the final stop in the W3C's process — it enters a period of testing around interoperability and performance called Candidate Recommendation, much of which consists of developing software for the browser vendors to test against. Ian Jacobs, the W3C’s Head of Marketing and Communications, explains that because stakeholders now have a final draft of the spec, everyone is on the same page. "Developers will know what features browser vendors will be implementing interoperably." On the user side, a finalized specification means we can look forward to more capable, reliabile web applications.

This new focus on performance will hopefully help narrow the gap between web and native applications on mobile devices. Several high profile companies, including Facebook, have switched from HTML5 to native apps for their mobile presence, leading many to question whether the Open Web Platform can compete. But Jacobs says it’s important to keep perspective about exactly where we are in the platform’s development cycle. The W3C’s position is that while it’s great for developers to be building apps with cutting-edge web technologies, "we have just reached feature complete today, and this will not be a standard for two years. It should not be surprising that we see these hiccups along the way."

The biggest question in the world of HTML5 is the video tag

The biggest question in the world of HTML5 is the video tag, which still requires the W3C to decide which codec to use. Apple and Microsoft are both supporting the Motion Picture Experts Group’s H.264 standard, while Google and Mozilla both support VP8 (the video component of WebM) — an ostensibly patent-unencumbered codec that Google open sourced after buying its owner, On2 Technologies, back in 2010. However, last year MPEG-LA (the licensing authority for H.264), began assembling a patent pool for patentholders whose technologies are essential to VP8, casting doubts on its long-term viability as a free alternative to H.264. For its part, the W3C has a royalty-free patent policy, which requires that any technology essential to its specifications be made freely available to all member organizations. So far, there’s no other clear contender to H.264, which is already widespread, although Jacobs says the W3C "will continue to work with stakeholders to achieve a royalty-free codec for the web," and last month the organization encouraged the IETF to help work toward royalty-free codecs for the WebRTC specification — an emerging web technology that allows Skype-like voice and video chat in the browser.

So what does the future hold for the Open Web Platform now that the HTML5 specification has been finalized? As the W3C shifts resources toward tools for testing interoperability and performance, we can expect the average experience on the web to keep improving. And having a stable specification in hand gives businesses and developers some extra incentive to start taking advantage of newer technologies. The people designing web standards agree they have a long way to go before they can compete head-to-head with native applications, but things are moving forward.