What HTML5 Really Means


One of the coolest things about the church media crowd is that you guys are at the forefront of technology buzz. You’re the early adopters and the first ones to know about the latest technologies and trends. Because of that, you’re also the most concerned about HTML5 and the future of the web.

To be honest, I’ve delayed writing about HTML5 because I didn’t feel like it was important for us to be in the argument. Clover has long provided the best of what’s available on both Flash and HTML, and nothing has changed about that. But recently we’ve realized that there’s so much misinformation floating around that it was time to debunk some myths and give our perspective on the issue.


What Is HTML

I’ll start at the beginning. HTML is one of the languages that the web is written in. It’s been around for a long time and it’s evolved and expanded in spurts as different programming groups have added features. The most difficult sticking point for HTML is that it is handled differently by different browsers, and it has to be backwards-compatible (meaning that any new features still have to work with the old ones, unless you’re Microsoft and you don’t care).

There have been several versions of HTML, and for most of the past decade, XHTML was hailed as the latest and greatest (i heart validator, anyone?). Unfortunately, after years of hopeful work, XHTML was never actually ratified and is now dead.

Enter HTML5, the new latest and greatest.


What’s New With HTML5

It’s easy to see why web programmers get excited about HTML5. It introduces many new technologies that can be used to create experiences that are more interactive than ever possible with current HTML. And people are starting to create some great demos. With HTML5, regular web pages can finally do some of what Flash does, including 3D animation, typography control, video effects and persistent data storage.


What HTML5 Really Means For The Web

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. A BIG catch. Like its predecessors, HTML5 is only supported on some browsers, and every one of them does things differently. If you checked out the link to demos above, you might have noticed a warning that looks like this:

So… HTML5 does cool new things, but most of them can only be viewed in Safari? I actually happen to like Safari, but last time I checked, only 3.5% of average people use it. Even when you add in Chrome, which uses the same underlying engine as Safari, it’s still less than 20% of viewers.

Now here’s where the core of the argument lies, in my opinion. One set of people say something like, “Well sure it’s only supported by some browsers now, but they’re the ones pushing the envelope and eventually HTML5 support will be widespread.” And the other side says something to the effect of, “While we hate the idea of catering to the lowest common denominator, we have to be practical. We can’t create storefronts that don’t work for 80% of our customers, and for better or for worse, we can build everything we want using existing technologies that everyone can use right now.

And this brings to the forefront the central flaw in the language of the web. The people who make the browsers have all the power in what parts of HTML get implemented, but they have very different motivations from each other and from the people creating the language itself. You can bet on the fact that Microsoft will support a different version of HTML than Apple will, and both will support a different version than what is considered “standard” by the people who came up with it.

It’s a truly unfortunate state of the web, but it’s the reality. Until one group of people can create a language from the ground up and then enforce that language in all browsers perfectly, we’re not going to see the kind of change that HTML5 is purported to be.


HTML5 and Apple

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I truly believe that Apple is one of the most amazing companies around today. Their products have shaped culture and technology more than any other single organization that I can think of. And heck, their products have affected my life more than any company I can think of.

I love my iPhone. And my wife loves her iPad. And while I respect Apple’s amazing ability to advertise just how revolutionary their products are, there is something very real about the Steve Jobs Effect. In essence, Apple can spin almost anything in their favor. And I think even the most die-hard HTML5 fans would agree that Apple has been the single biggest force pushing HTML5 into the spotlight.

Here’s the spin, though. The iPhone and iPad have a glaring hole. But instead of acknowledging the downside of a missing feature that renders hundreds of thousands of websites useless, Steve Jobs has put up a gigantic smokescreen. His letter about his ‘Thoughts on Flash’ has a few valid points, but is a complete distraction from the real issue. Steve has taken a lesson straight out of Chapter 19 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You don’t have to answer a debate directly if you distract everyone with a different debate.

I’d like to suggest that in a different world (one where feuding companies cared more about their customers than their pride), Apple would be one of the biggest backers of Flash. After all, for years Flash has allowed people to create some of the most beautiful and engaging experiences on the web.


HTML5 for Video

So far, one of the most practical uses of HTML5 is to serve up video on mobile devices (as alternative to using Flash). This is nice, but not especially necessary. The current version of HTML has been capable of serving video to mobile phones for several years, and to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why people have forgotten that.

The debate about video within HTML5 is complicated, and more than I want to get into here, but I’m bringing it up because I believe that it’s the single most significant part of what is currently supported in HTML5. (Although Internet Explorer doesn’t support it yet, companies like NBC and Time Warner aren’t planning to switch over, and YouTube recently made a strong case for Flash).


HTML5 vs Flash

Possibly the biggest misconception about HTML5 is that it is a replacement for Flash. This may be straight out of Apple’s mouth, but it’s simply not true. Even if HTML5 was ever standardized and supported by all browsers (which I’ve briefly made the case that that will never happen), it still wouldn’t do everything that Flash does.

The debate about HTML5 vs Flash is actually a very technical one, but the guts of it are as follows:

Flash’s language ActionScript3 was created from the ground up by the same company that created the way to run it. It provides direct access to core elements like text, graphics, video, mouse interaction, etc. When you write code for Flash, it looks and works identically in every browser (what’s referred to as “cross-platform”). As an analogy, let’s say Flash allows you to build a house to the exact specifications you design, using the exact materials you ask for (wood, nails, drywall, etc).

HTML5 interacts with two other languages called JavaScript and CSS. The three of them together interact with the browser’s Document Object Model (DOM) to have access to text, graphics, etc. In our analogy, this is like calling across the room to tell a carpenter to build a wall for you. You request wood studs and 3/8″ drywall, but the carpenter might use metal studs and 1/2″ fiberglass panels. If you don’t really care how your house looks, then this isn’t too concerning. But if you’re a designer or an architect, you’d be pulling your hair out.

As a real-world example, try Vimeo’s new HTML5 player. To be fair, it’s just a beta, but it has all the hallmarks of HTML. It looks different in every browser. It can’t go full-screen. The fonts are jagged and pixelated. And it lacks all of the smoothness and polish of their Flash player. Oh yeah, and it only works for the 1/4 of us who happen to be using the right browsers. (Full disclosure: I LOVE vimeo, just not their HTML5 player).


Clover’s Stance on Flash and HTML

In our view, Flash allows the most creativity and the most power to create beautiful sites on the web. Many of the types of animation we create, or the fonts we use, or the tools that we’ve created for editing photos are far beyond what HTML is capable of.

There are parts of Flash that are inherently limited, and no one denies that. So we’ve created other tools that work in addition to Flash. For example, every site we create has a Flash version and an HTML version. The HTML site works remarkably well on iPhones and iPads, and is always updated in sync with the Flash version. Because we provide both sites, our customers (and their visitors) get the best of both worlds – a specifically designed experience for both desktop and mobile browsers.

The same goes for search engines viewing our sites. Every piece of text on our sites (and every picture, calendar item, video or media item for that matter) is optimized for search engines, and we take that very seriously. We even provide specific tools to help our customers manage their SEO settings.

We’re always trying to use the best and most cutting edge tools to do what’s really valuable. We offered mobile video before we’d even heard of HTML5. Instead of getting hung up on the tools themselves, we put our care into the end product.


Bottom Line

We love Apple’s products… and we love Flash… and every other piece of the puzzle that helps create great experiences. Although Apple has a lot of weight to throw around, HTML5 isn’t practical yet. And Flash certainly isn’t going away any time soon.

It’s probably time for people on both sides of the argument to stop covering their ears and shouting. The debate is a heated one, and sometimes it’s hard not to let emotions polarize the issue, but the truth is that right now most of the loudest voices on both sides are people who have very loaded opinions. Apple has a huge stake in making Flash look like the problem, rather than admitting that their products have a substantial flaw. There are HTML programmers who love the safety and predictability of the design limitations within HTML. And there are Flash programmers who are scared to death of their design freedoms being taken away.

On the positive side, we all agree that we love progress and innovation. This is the fuel that drives our industry and forces us all to continue to develop our products to meet the needs of real people. We love technology that can move past the hype and actually benefit the masses. In our minds, if HTML5 can get there, the entire industry will adapt. But regardless of what happens in the future with HTML5, the web won’t fall apart, and innovative developers will continue to be innovative.

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Update:

If you have stumbled upon this post, we wanted to let you know that we have announced that we will be making Clover completely in HTML5. Since writing this post, a ton has progressed and changed in the development and adoption of HTML5, and it has become clear that it is here to stay. We are excited about how this new direction will open up a whole new world of possibilites and features for our Clover people, and are stoked and ready to go for it!

Check out my (Ben’s) comment below on 11/14, and if you get a sec, be sure to check out our announcement blog post.

  • HT

    Cool explanation. I attended local BarCamp few months ago and one of the session is on the same topic. HTML5 surely have a lot of potential, “potential” being the keyword here. And we have not even discuss HTML5 target adoption date! The target date seems to vary, but I have read the adoption date as far as 2012!!!

  • Matt Reyes

    I thought the main reason Apple was anti-Flash is due to the large amount of bugs in the MAC OS version of Flash….

  • http://www.cloversites.com Ben

    That’s a great point Matt. Steve Jobs has consistently bashed Flash for its bugs and for the fact that it would drain the battery on mobile devices. I think those two issues are the most valid ones by far, but there’s also more to the story. As far as bugs go, the vast majority of them are memory related, and caused by bad coding on the part of the people making Flash sites, not by Flash itself. I was actually guilty of this in the very first version of Clover – I didn’t properly get rid of the scroll bar in my code, so every time you went to a new page, the old scroll bar would stay in memory, and eventually the site would crash. I guess I could have blamed Adobe for that, but it was really my fault.

    The battery life issue is also a valid downside. I don’t think anyone denies that running Flash on a website takes more processing power – and therefore uses the battery faster – than a site without Flash.

    But then the core issue in my mind comes down to choice. Given those problems with Flash, should Apple decide for us and simply disallow it on its devices, or should it be our choice to use more of our battery so we can actually see every site on the web?

    The thing is, I completely understand Apple’s strategy. People would probably blame them for the fact that their battery didn’t last long enough or that a website had a bug every once in a while. But I personally am beginning to get really frustrated with the fact that almost every day I have to put down my phone and open my laptop instead.

  • http://www.cloversites.com Ben

    On another note, here’s a great article that articulates exactly why Apple is so good at what they do, and so hard to beat.

    And this touches on something that I didn’t mention in my post. For as much as I think Flash will stick around for a long time, it’s in spite of Adobe not because of them. Adobe has been abysmal at fighting back against Apple, and unfortunately I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

    http://flyosity.com/apple/why-apple-succeeds-others-fail.php

  • http://www.broadmoor.tv Allen

    Ben,
    I have to say your post is by far one of the best explanations of the issue I’ve seen. Now if only all the people in my church who have iPhones and iPads would read it, I’ll be able to walk down the halls without getting asked to explain why this site… Thanks!

  • http://realhopecc.com Bill

    Let me start by saying Clover is one of the best, easy to use and feature rich content management systems I have worked with.

    I think you are spot on about how early html5 is in its life cycle. And my hope is that Clover will become better at rendering the best website possible for each web browser and device. Clover has put together a solid solution for smart phones using html. However, for the iPad I would like to see Clover render the site with a similar navigation as the Flash based site. The iPad is a more capable device than a smart phone browser. For our site our users should see a horizontal “tab” based navigation on the iPad. This does not seem like a stretch for an html based site.

    Thank you for all the hard work in creating a great product!

  • Andy

    “But then the core issue in my mind comes down to choice. Given those problems with Flash, should Apple decide for us and simply disallow it on its devices”

    I’ve been back in the Mac camp now for about three years, and this is the main thing that frustrates me about Apple. This is how Apple is, and how they will be into the foreseeable future (only loosing market share is going to change this about Apple). Anyone who wants to be a Mac fanboy has to live with this fact: Apple makes a lot of the choices for you.

    It’s the main reason I went with a Droid instead of an iPhone.

  • http://Www.newlifegrandrapids.org Jon

    Hey. Don’t know if this will catch your eye after a year and a half but I’ll give it a shot. We have been with cloversites for nearly 3 years, and simultaneously transitioning to apple products.
    When we signed up with you, your product was about the coolest thing on the planet. (and I think the greenhouse still is). However, as mac products begin to ship without flash installed, and today we see adobe discontinuing flash for all mobile devices (check the news), flash is really up against the ropes.
    As these changes occur, I am watching my end user experience begin to deteriorate. The mobile site used to be pretty cool….. But now it feels clunky and awkward compared to a lot of mobile sites.
    New Mac owners(there are a lot of those) have got to download flash to view our site correctly. Clunky. The load times which havent really changed, seem slower…. I don t know why that is. Perhaps, because I am using less and less flash, the lag is more evident when I arrive at a flash site. soooo. What’s the plan? I would like to know if you see the hole in your boat. If you see it, I am sure you can fix it. We like you guys. On the other hand…. If you don’t believe there is a leak….. I’m pretty nervous in your boat.

  • Nathan

    The way Jobs explained it once was that Apple’s innovations are, in part, fueled by adopting technologies that are in the Spring of their life cycle, like HTML5, and ignoring technologies that are in decline, like Flash. Apple has a history of betting on the right horse and an uncanny ability to look around the corner at what’s coming in technology.

    With the recent news that Adobe has abandoned flash development for mobile platforms, I’m wondering how Clover is feeling about the decision to wholeheartedly back flash.

    I assume you were hoping Apple would get on board and include native Flash support for its iOS devices at some point. Now that this hope has been dashed and it is clear that Flash has a diminishing future in the increasingly mobile web, what are Clover’s plans?

    I agree with Bill in that the HTML solution currently available for our sites leaves a lot to be desired, and at some point, I would really like to see a more full-featured experience for clients and devices that do not support flash.

    Though I plan to quickly adopt the payments solution your rolling out next month, I would sleep easier about my decision to use Clover for our organization if you were working on functional matters that pertain to the inevitable decline of flash, in addition to revenue increasing implementations like Clover Donations.

    Just one customers .02.

  • http://www.cloversites.com Ben

    Hey Jon –

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Your comment does a great job summarizing our thoughts on the issue.

    Which is why we’re really excited to announce that we’ll be making Clover in HTML5: http://www.speakingofclover.com/2011/11/clover-in-html5/

    In our minds, a lot has changed about HTML5 in the past year and a half. When I wrote the post above (What HTML5 Really Means), there was way more hype than substance about HTML5. And I personally thought that it would go the route of most of the past W3C specifications (like XHTML which floundered for years, getting slowly and partially implemented adopted before being killed).

    But amazingly, HTML5 has been adopted at a blazing pace. And it seems to only be speeding up in recent months with Chrome and Firefox releasing major versions every six weeks!

    And honestly, for us it’s only been partially a technical issue. The real difficulty is that we’ve spent 25,000 man hours making Clover what is, and it’s going to take just as long to recreate it in HTML. So for that kind of investment, we wanted to make sure that the end result was truly worth it.

    But now that we’re on board, we’ll be going for it with all our energy. And in the process, it should open up some new abilities to make features that we couldn’t do easily before. So I think it’s going to be a fun next season around here.

  • Zach

    I’m happy to hear about the migration away from flash. The mobile experience with clover is about to ratchet up considerably! Finally I will be able to fill out that form on my iOS device! And have flow layouts rather than tiny fixed height panes with scrollbars. Awesome undertaking and appreciate the work.

    To me it was not about html5 being wonderful. It was about flash being a subpar experience in general to HTML sites which were way more usable and just as pretty. If flash were a more usable platform, then it might have become more center stage in the browser, even potentially being integrated more so than a plugin. Then there’s the security exploits we’ve seen in flash ads.

    I think webGL is an interesting thing on the horizon. What folks have done with emscripten is amazing and ultimately shows the fail of flash. It’s not so much about HTML 5 IMO it’s just HTML has steadily improved, partly bc of the push for 5.

    As one who used their circa 2007 palm treo to watch videos and so on – without flash – I agree with that point. iOS got a lot if things right at the right time and with the right shine but…they were probably helped by seeing what was wrong by the pioneers before them that we’ve already forgotten or still loathe.

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