We’ve come a long way from the flat documents that made up the Web in its early years. As Internet access has expanded and bandwidth has increased, designers and programmers have figured out ways to build sophisticated, interactive applications that run through the browser. Nowadays, these include Web-based word processors, photo-editing software, money-management tools, and much more.
The next generation of HTML, the markup language that is used to build most Web content, promises to make Web applications work even better. Some proposed features of this new standard–HTML 5–are already being built into several popular browsers, offering a glimpse of an application-enabled Web.
“We started to see a migration to doing more and more stuff on the Web,” says Christopher Blizzard, open-source evangelist for the Mozilla Foundation, which maintains the Firefox browser. Blizzard says that most browsers simply cannot access data stored offline, or perform complex graphical capabilities without the use of a plug-in such as Flash or Java. “We’re trying to find ways for people to be able to take the live, programmable documents that make up the Web and start integrating them with all these other pieces outside the scope of the browser.”
But guided by HTML 5, browsers are finally being reengineered to address many of these problems. Michael Smith, a member of the World Wide Web Consortium’s HTML working group, says that the most important part of the effort has been creating specifications to ensure that different browsers perform more tasks in the same way.
The new standard also focuses on making Web applications work offline. Google Gears and Adobe AIR already allow a Web-based application to access local storage and processing on a user’s computer, but HTML 5 aims to make offline capability even easier for a browser to use, without requiring additional plug-ins. Mozilla’s Blizzard adds that it’s not just about going offline: it’s also about allowing a browser to access more of the user’s hardware. For example, he says, standards are starting to emerge for defining how a browser running on a cell phone should access the location information stored on that device.
All the major browsers–Safari, Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, and Internet Explorer–have started adopting parts of HTML 5. But each browser has taken a slightly different approach. Apple’s Safari, for example, has focused on performance, incorporating new features only when they do not harm the browser’s overall speed. The latest version of the Opera browser includes many features of HTML 5, and an experimental version supports HTML 5’s video capabilities. Both Google Chrome and the beta version of Safari support HTML 5’s offline features.
For the features described in HTML 5 to become an official Web standard, they need to be incorporated into two different browsers. Since they are built on the same framework Safari and Chrome count as one browser in this respect. A Web page that uses the feature will then need to work just as well in both browsers. Smith of the World Wide Web Consortium says that it may take some time to make progress, since there are so many independent browsers. “There’s no way to speed it up,” he says.