HTML 5: Could it kill Flash and Silverlight?

The budding Web spec just might remove the need for proprietary rich Internet app add-ins

HTML 5, a groundbreaking upgrade to the prominent Web presentation specification, could become a game-changer in Web application development, one that might even make obsolete such plug-in-based rich Internet application (RIA) technologies as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Sun JavaFX.

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) HTML 5 proposal is geared toward Web applications, something not adequately addressed in previous incarnations of HTML, the W3C acknowledges. In other words, HTML 5 tackles the gap that Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX are trying to fill.

The rich promise of HTML 5

"HTML 5 is really the second coming of this Web stuff -- of the Web," says Dion Almaer, co-founder of the Ajaxian Web site and co-director of developer tools at Mozilla. The specification boasts capabilities covering video and graphics on the Web, as well as a slew of APIs, Almaer notes.

HTML 5 technologies such as Canvas, for 2-D drawing on a Web page, are being promoted by heavyweights in the Internet space such as Apple, Google, and Mozilla. (Although Microsoft itself has given a thumbs-up to certain aspects of HTML 5, it has not backed Canvas.)

"HTML 5 features like Canvas, local storage, and Web Workers let us do more in the browser than ever before," says Ben Galbraith, also co-founder of the Ajaxian Web site and co-director of developer tools at Mozilla. Local storage enables users to work in a browser when a connection drops and Web Workers makes "next generation" applications incredibly responsive by pushing long-running tasks to the background, he says.

Web applications will become more fun, says Ian Fette, project manager at Google for the Chrome browser: "They're going to be faster and they're just going to provide overall a better user experience and make the distinction between online apps and desktop apps blurred."

HTML 5 features already appearing in browsers

After five years of work, a draft of the HTML 5 specification was released in 2008. Parts of it are showing up in browsers, but the complete HTML 5 work won't be done for years.

"For example, video support is new in HTML 5 and new in Firefox 3.5," notes Vlad Vukicevic, technical lead of the Firefox project at Mozilla. Google's new Chrome browser also has some capabilities, including video tags, derived from the HTML 5 specification. And Microsoft has several HTML 5 features in Internet Explorer 8, such as local storage, AJAX navigation, and mutable DOM prototypes.

Opera plans to add capabilities such as Canvas and video to its browser, says Molly Holzschlag, Opera's Web evangelist. Meanwhile, Apple supports HTML 5 audio and video tags in its Safari browser, as well as the Canvas technology (which it invented).

The case for HTML 5: Get rid of proprietary add-ons

While Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems (soon to be Oracle) duke it out with their own technologies to implement multimedia on the Web, HTML 5 has the potential to eat these vendors' lunches, offering Web experiences based on an industry standard.

Therefore, Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight could see their turf invaded by HTML 5, Almaer says. "Essentially, what it does is lays the groundwork to have equivalent functionality that Flash or Silverlight provides," says RedMonk analyst Michael Cote. It also could threaten JavaFX, he adds.

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