HTML5: What you need to know

HTML5, the next evolution of HTML, or Hyper Text Mark-up Language, forms the backbone of almost every site on the Internet. Since the launch of HTML4 back in 1997 HTML has been poked, prodded and tweaked here and there as the internet has evolved.

Somewhere along the line HTML5 has become synonymous with “everything we needed Flash for” and a number of the major changes have attracted much media attention as the battle lines between HTML and Flash have been drawn, but a lot of the less flashy changes (no pun intended) are overlooked.

So what makes HTML5 Special?

New graphics capabilities are probably the features most associated with HTML5 which will allow developers to throw 2D and 3D graphics around the screen like never before, both Microsoft and Google have created some fascinating demos where you can test drive the new graphics.

There are some smaller subtler features too like the simple ability to add a curve to the side of a box. That may not seem like much but it means one less asset the user has to download to view your site making it all the more snappy and responsive.

What that doesn’t mean is that you can’t do interesting cross browser graphics things in HTML already. Our own Zacapa site has plenty of neat graphical touches without ever going near either Flash or HTML5.

Whilst you are being amazed at quite how much you can do with HTML5 you might want to see what the guys who create the Unreal Engine, one of the most powerful and popular 3D engines available to gamers, are doing with Flash right now.

Native video streaming is the other big change that people are talking about. Previously we relied on Flash (or sometimes Silverlight) to handle videos on the web. Unfortunately there hasn’t yet been a mass consensus on how videos are streamed. This means that it you have a browser that supports HTML5 you might still have to install additional components, even if you want to use HTML5 to watch videos on the most popular video site in the world.

Semantic content tagging may not be the sexiest topic but it may well start to affect the way your site is seen by search engines. Google already supports a feature called Microdata that allows various types of information about the data on a web page to be encoded directly into it. We use Microdata in the Tesco Phoneshop site to allow the custom Google search to give us all sorts of information about the data being returned. HTML5 also offers a host of other new features for semantic tagging. Whilst it may not be used yet, it’s definitely something our SEO specialists should be talking to you about.

The introduction of new features to aid offline support may seem counter-intuitive (after all, isn’t the internet about online?) but HTML5 gives developers the ability to store large amounts of structured data locally so users could take a local copy of your web app to browse whilst they travel without having to install anything. Of course having just been through the furore that was the EU cookie laws what we might have to be very careful about what we store locally, but there is some very interesting scope for using these new features.

These are just four of the big changes HTML5 brings with no mention of local file access improvements that can give your users better upload experiences or new features to support more interactive communication to allow real time updates to your apps. HTML5 is a lot more than just a replacement for Flash, which of course is still widely supported and won’t be going away anytime soon. What HTML5 reflects are the changes to the way we use the internet. Since it’s still in its infancy, HTML5 will incorporate more as it matures.

Matthew Gallacher is head of technical strategy at Mundocom.