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The Web Is Reborn

The last decade expanded what we could do online, but the Web’s basic programming couldn’t keep up. That threatened to fracture the world’s greatest innovation engine—until a small group of Web rivals joined forces to save it.
October 27, 2010

The Web has been showing its age.

Superficially, it appears healthy: websites have grown more powerful and clever over the past decade. Unlike the sites of the 1990s, which mainly showed static text and images, sites in the 2000s could do things. We could manipulate a stick figure on a Google map and bring up photos taken at the real-world location. But beneath the surface, this “Web 2.0” era required a lot of tape and glue, because video and other multimedia elements often didn’t work smoothly on basic Web pages.

To make everything come together, website developers needed help: they found it by turning away from HTML, the open programming standard that originally made the Web blossom. To get videos to play and animations to run, websites added proprietary programs to their sites–programs with futuristic-seeming names like Flash and Silverlight–and forced users to download a corresponding “plug-in” to run each one. That made websites complex and slow, which was annoying enough on a PC. But on mobile devices–the computing platform of the future–it was often unacceptable. After all, their screens are small and their connections apt to be uneven.

And that problem fueled a development that further undercut the Web: the rise of apps. These programs, customized for specific devices such as smart phones or tablet computers, deliver information, movies, and games from the Internet without making the user go to a page on the World Wide Web. Sure, there’s talk about “open platforms” for apps; in contrast to the application store controlled by Apple, Google’s Android Market lets any developer make an app available for devices that run the Android operating system. But this is a limited form of openness, far short of the founding ideal of the Web: that online information should be available to anyone with access to a browser and a search engine, which is to say everyone. Before the rise of the Web, it was possible to go online, but many people did it through closed services such as Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online. Not until the Web emerged as a common platform, with its openness spelled out in the shared DNA of HTML, did the Internet turn into the world’s greatest generator of economic value. But as time went on, the Web’s status was jeopardized.

Fortunately, a handful of key people put aside the rivalries between them and led an insurrection in time to give the Web another chance.

The coup

When Tim Berners-Lee concocted the idea of a giant web of interlinked documents in the late 1980s, he needed a way to tell the pages how to behave and how to link to each other. No computer languages at the time were quite up to the task, so he built his own. The result, HyperText Markup Language, was a set of labels to help structure documents so that a computer could interpret them, display them properly, and connect them to each other. Over time, HTML became the mother tongue of Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. By programming in HTML, Web developers tell a browser what to do when it encounters a page. The programmers essentially use a standardized dictionary to identify which parts of their pages are images, text, drop-down menus, and so on. Crucially, HTML itself embodies the ideal that knowledge is meant to be shared. Unlike proprietary software that hides its programming code, HTML lets anyone see and learn from its workings. Visit the New York Times website; click “view” in the menu of your Web browser, and then “source.” Now you can see where Google gets its description of the site, because it’s embedded in the HTML for

<meta name=”description” content=”Find ­breaking news, multimedia, reviews & ­opinion on Washington, business, sports, ­movies, travel, books, jobs, education, real estate, cars & more”>

But by the late 1990s, Berners-Lee was questioning whether HTML had outlived its purpose. The Internet boom was on, and HTML couldn’t handle the complexity of what people and businesses were trying to use the Web for. He advocated starting over with a new set of instructions for the Web–one that made it more future-proof and, among other things, better able to handle the transfer of data between sites and users’ computers. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a standards body headed by Berners-­Lee (and sheltered at MIT), decided to cease development of HTML.

Eventually what emerged was an alternative language known as XHTML. The Web industry at first supported the move, but it reconsidered that position as XHTML developed. It wasn’t completely “backward compatible,” which meant pages had to be redone to comply with the proposed new standard. And it was incredibly harsh in the way it handled mistakes made by Web programmers. Until then, the Web had been forgiving; it simply glossed over badly written code. The new system, however, mandated that any pages with malformed code return an error message. That seemed fine under lab conditions, but in practice even the most experienced Web designers had trouble writing perfectly formed XHTML code. Web pages were breaking without warning.

A splinter movement began to form, and the disagreement came to a head in 2004 during a W3C workshop at the headquarters of Adobe Systems, the maker of Flash, in San Jose, California. “The question was one of evolution or revolution,” says Håkon Wium Lie, the chief technology officer for the browser maker Opera, who was one of the organizers of the event. “Should we evolve HTML as it was used on the Web, or try to create a new, cleaner language?”

A member of Wium Lie’s team, a programmer named Ian ­Hickson, put it to a vote, proposing that the W3C and its industry partners bring back ordinary HTML. The measure was voted down, 11 to 8. But a number of the people who had backed ­Hickson’s proposal had something in common: they represented Microsoft, Apple, and Mozilla, which actually made Web browsers. When it became clear that these rivals all agreed, their representatives knew they “had no choice but to do something,” says Tantek Celik, who was Microsoft’s W3C representative at the time and now works for Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser.

That something was, effectively, a coup. Two days after the meeting broke up, a faction led by Mozilla, Opera, and Apple announced that it was forming a new body to take up the work on HTML that was being abandoned by the W3C. The splinter group began drafting a new version of HTML almost immediately, and ­Hickson became its editor. Their update is known as HTML5, because it is essentially the fifth major version of the HTML dictionary.

Watch this: The introduction of a video element in HTML5 couldn’t have come soon enough. According to projections from Cisco, online video viewing will soon surpass peer-to-peer file sharing as the activity responsible for the most traffic on the Internet.

The W3C still toiled on a new version of XHTML, while most companies that make browsers doubled down on HTML (though Microsoft stepped back from involvement in both groups rather than put all its weight behind either standard). By the end of 2006, however, Berners-Lee was forced to essentially admit defeat. He said the W3C would collaborate with the rebels on HTML5 to create “one of the crown jewels of Web technology.”

“The W3C lost sight of the fact that they have no power, and that’s really all there is to it,” says Hickson, who today works for Google. “Anyone can write a specification, but if nobody implements it, what is it but a particularly dry form of science fiction?” The W3C plans to officially ratify HTML5 sometime over the next two years. But that is merely a technical matter. The important point is that HTML5 has been developed by companies that actually have to answer to their customers. And their work has made for the biggest overhaul the programming of the Web has ever received.

New tricks

The central goal of HTML5 is to give websites the chance to expand beyond pages and into programs. For instance, the new terms in the HTML dictionary include “canvas,” which lets a website designer insert a moving graphic that can be used in games or animations. The language will also have tags for video and audio, which should dramatically streamline the way the Web handles multimedia: it will be as easy for a Web developer to incorporate a film clip or a song as it is to place text and images.

While the Web is already saturated with music and video ­(YouTube alone might count for more than 10 percent of Internet traffic worldwide), HTML5 will clean this content up: multimedia elements will no longer require complex code and an add-on program such as Flash. This should make Web browsers faster and more efficient. Learning to build Web pages should become easier. And HTML5 could potentially boost security, by making it harder for attackers to dupe people into downloading malicious plug-in programs.

In some ways, HTML5 is taking the best of how the Web works and making it standard. For instance, today Gmail lets you take a file from a computer desktop and instantly attach it to an e-mail by dragging it into the browser window. Now that trick is being enshrined in HTML5, which means that easy dragging and dropping will become part of the common set of assumptions about what Web pages can do.

What HTML5 will change: The standard will make the Web run more smoothly and enable sites to offer new features. Mouse over the pink circles to see how one site might be refreshed with the new programming. Credit: Andy Memmelaar

It’s clear that the technology will open new possibilities, too. Still in development is a feature that enables a browser to store a large amount of data; the new specifications recommend that the amount be five megabytes per Web domain, or 1,000 times more than is currently possible. That capacity could enable people to use Web pages even when they’re not connected to the Internet. You could use downtime on the subway to alter your fantasy-football lineup or write e-mails; then, when you had connectivity again, you’d find that the website “takes care of synching it up,” says Anne van ­Kesteren, a software engineer who works on open standards for Opera.

Even when you’re online, this feature should have benefits. If the browser itself can store information, it won’t have to constantly retrieve what it needs from the website you’re using. Everything should run faster when the pipes aren’t clogged by constant chatter between your computer and a distant database. It also means a website can remember what you were creating or doing before you left to do something else. For example, Mozilla has been using this offline storage function in a still-experimental program that lets the browser act as photo-editing software. You’ll be able to manipulate an image on a Web page and have your work saved there even before you’ve officially finished and uploaded the image.

Offline storage also promises to enhance a product sold by the Utah startup LucidChart, which lets people in different locations collaborate on documents over the Web–one user can watch in real time as another draws diagrams and moves images around on screen. When HTML5 becomes widespread, these users won’t have to be working simultaneously. They could each make changes while offline, and the program would meld their changes later.

“It’s finally possible for us to build applications on the Web that are not just imitations of desktop software,” says LucidChart founder Ben Dilts. “It’s now possible to build Web applications that are better than desktop software.”

One of the most illustrative applications of HTML5 is “The Wilderness Downtown,” an interactive video that the Canadian band Arcade Fire unveiled in September through a collaboration with Google. Type in the address of a house where you grew up, and the screen is soon given over to a video of a hooded man running down a dark, empty street to the accompaniment of a haunting, driving piece of music from the group’s new album, The Suburbs. After a minute or so, the video changes, and the man seems to be sprinting through your old neighborhood, as depicted in satellite images and street-level pictures. The combination of sound and personalized images is engrossing and deeply affecting (the New Yorker called it “emotionally fraught”). And although some of the elements could have been created in a program like Flash, only HTML5 could have pulled together data, photos, and video so smoothly from multiple sources. The message behind the experiment: the next-generation Web will be more open to artistry.

Work in progress: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer trails rival browsers in its ability to handle HTML5.

Everyday sites will benefit, too. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who so detests what Flash does to the Web that he won’t make iPads and iPhones capable of running it, praises the way that HTML5 will enable websites to create advanced graphics and animations and richer typography. Its elegance has already improved the document-­sharing website, one of the most prominent sites to begin using those elements of HTML5 that Web browsers can recognize today. Scribd’s founders used to fret that the site, which used Flash to display documents, didn’t look that great. The things people posted weren’t as readable or as easy to manipulate as they should have been. They appeared in a frame, like “documents in a box,” as Scribd cofounder Jared Friedman put it.

So Scribd’s engineers spent six months rebuilding the site. They stopped using Flash to display documents, even though that meant they had to convert tens of millions of files to HTML5. Eventually their exhausting coding marathons paid off. After the renewal, Scribd’s pages looked crisper because the documents had come out of their boxes. No longer did it seem as if users had to view the files through a lens. Readers began sticking around three times longer, Friedman says. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Even we were surprised how good the metrics looked.”

Scribd’s renovation also made the site usable in the browser of an iPad, where it has the smoothness and light feel of an app. To turn a page, you can simply swipe a slider bar at the bottom of a document. This reflects what might ultimately be HTML5’s most important benefit: the way it can make the Web useful on mobile devices.

Some of the credit for that achievement goes to Apple, which has, somewhat counterintuitively, become one of the biggest players on the Web, despite the fact that it has driven the app revolution and holds only a slim share of the browser market.

When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it dramatically altered the expectations the public had for the mobile Web. Until then, most smart phones offered only a substandard version of the Web as it appeared on PCs. Apple, however, opted to use the same system that underpinned its desktop Safari browser: WebKit, its open-source browser engine, the software component that translates the code of a Web page into what appears on the screen. In 2008, Google adopted WebKit as the basis of its Chrome browser, bringing it to desktops and Android phones. A string of phone makers followed: Nokia, Palm, Samsung, and the maker of the BlackBerry, Research in Motion, have incorporated WebKit browsers into their handsets. Today, WebKit is the dominant engine for mobile Web browsing–and because WebKit easily supports HTML5, Web developers can easily use it to create mobile versions of their sites that work well and look good on multiple devices.

New life

HTML5 can’t fix the Web overnight. There’s still a long way to go. For example, while the browser makers are in agreement on most things, they continue to argue about which video standards to support. It might also take some time for Web developers to put the technology to its most significant uses; first they’ll want to be sure that enough people are using Web browsers that can fully handle HTML5 (see above chart, “Work in Progress”). That might not happen for a year or two. But eventually, more and more sites will follow Scribd’s example. They will become sharper and more useful on PCs and phones and tablets alike. And before long, it might become less and less necessary for anyone to download dozens of individual apps. One program–the Web browser–could deliver a smooth, satisfying experience on either a PC or a mobile device.

This is not to say that apps will fade. In fact, they figure to be where the next generation of user-interface improvements will come from–before Web standards catch up again. And for some companies it still makes business sense to present content in a way that is customized for a certain platform. Giving people access to information more quickly and more simply than they could get it from a Web browser is a way to build customer loyalty, and making content exclusive to a certain device can be a way to get people to pay more for the material (or to pay for it at all). This is why Wired magazine proclaimed this summer that “the Web is dead.”

But by cleaning it up and moving it forward, HTML5 provides good reason to believe that the Web will remain the main platform for new services, while apps remain secondary. And this matters because the health of the Web is vital for creativity and entrepreneurialism. One problem today is that the mess of the Web imposes a sort of tax on site creators, who often need to pay Adobe or Microsoft or someone else for the tools that make their multimedia plug-ins work. Yet they also need the Web, because its ubiquity offers unparalleled opportunities to reach an audience. That’s the biggest reason the flourishing of this medium sparked an innovation boom in the 1990s. And it’s why HTML5 will spur new investments in Web startups, says David Cowan, a partner at the venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners (see Notebooks).

“If you have two businesses–one of them that runs on the Web and one that runs in an app–the one that runs on the Web is going to be bigger, by definition,” Cowan says. “There are lots of cute little app companies out there, but they’re not going to be Amazon or eBay.”

Bobbie Johnson, a former technology correspondent for the Guardian, is a freelance writer based in Brighton, England.

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