HTML5 For Dummies – Why It Matters

(Updated to reflect the fact that yes, Google can crawl some aspects of flash!)

A few years ago most media execs could safely ignore technology. The biggest changes for television – color, cable/sat and the remote control – all emerged a long time ago. Even HD was a well understood, if slow moving technology: easy to understand and plan for with low tech options (like cropping tape on the camera viewfinder and air-brushed makeup). Magazine and newspaper execs could safely leave those printing, binding and mailing breakthroughs to the circulation wonks in the basement.

Not anymore. If you’re not up on the latest technology advances on the internet, you’re likely to end up behind before you can catch your breath. And one of the most important advances in years, HTML5, is about to rock your world.

I can see you tuning out already. A geeky post, about bits and bytes. Count me out. Abandon at your peril though, because if you aren’t planning for this next wave, you’ll quickly fall behind. That’s because Google is going to use it as a weapon to attack both Microsoft and Adobe – and to build an unassailable position as the dominant web media platform of the next decade.

Let’s first set the stage for why HTML5 is so important by talking web browsers. A little more than ten years ago the lowly web browser used to be just for viewing text and images. But then a number of new technologies, with names like Java and AJAX, enabled a new type of web site – one that worked more like Microsoft Office, and less like a loose-leaf binder. These browser extensions are responsible for most of the rich web sites we use today.

Adobe’s Flash – another browser extension – enabled the animation and video rich sites we enjoy today. Most online video today, and most games too, use Flash. And Flash is so ubiquitous that most media companies don’t even need to worry about it – if you want video on your website, you build or buy a flash player, embed it into the web code (aka the HTML) and go back to making great content. Flash is the color television of the web.

But Flash has its problems. As a separate, single-vendor solution it can be slow, buggy, hard to modify, and concentrates a lot of power into one company’s hands. It also means extra work for media companies, because more and more non-PC internet-connected devices don’t support flash (the iPhone, Xbox 360 and most set-top boxes come to mind). That means more effort is needed to deliver your media everywhere your audience wants it. Here at Revision3 we encode our popular shows in 7 different versions, to enable the anytime, anywhere, any device, any service viewing our audience demands.

Sure, other media technologies are available, including Microsoft’s Silverlight and Move Networks. But they have all the drawbacks of Flash, with none of the relative ubiquity.

Why do we even have Flash, Silverlight, Move and others? Because today’s HTML – the set of commands that allow a website to load and display a page inside a browser, doesn’t support audio or video. That’s right, they have no innate understanding of how to find, grab, display and control streaming media – or even animation.

HTML 5, though, does. When HTML 5 has been approved, and becomes the defacto standard for the web, we won’t need proprietary players to let our audience interact with our media. It will just be a standard part of any web page, like text and images are today. That’s a radical change, very much like the analog to digital transition terrestrial broadcasters just went through.

The rub, though, as with most technology, is adoption. None of today’s popular browsers fully support this new standard – because it hasn’t been ratified yet. Microsoft, as usual, pays lip service to the new standards as it pushes Silverlight – and they control the lion’s share of the browser market today with their Internet Explorer.

Even if every browser maker embraced HTML 5 fully, it would still be years and years before most devices supported it – that’s because many users just don’t update their browsers. Heck, Internet Explorer 6 came out eight years ago, and it’s still got a 27% market share, according to data from Net Applications. Even worse, the HTML 5 working group can’t decide on which video encoding mechanism, aka the codec, to standardize on. That means even more uncertainty and confusion as HTML 5 rolls out.

“So nothing’s going to change quickly”, I can see you thinking, “so why am I wasting my time reading this?”. Because of Google.

Google is one of the biggest proponents of HTML 5. It will help their application division, enabling better support for Gmail, Google Apps and Wave. But it’ll really help their core search business. That’s because the Google programs that crawl and index every web page can’t understand everything inside Flash. Google is blinded by parts of Flash, including some anchor tags, images and other elements. So it’s in their best interests for everyone to move to HTML5 as soon as possible – preferably using the company’s Chrome browser, operating system or Android phone. And the company has a pretty compelling weapon to get your viewers and readers to switch. It’s called YouTube.

(correction note – I didn’t initally realize that Google could crawl some flash – it can, as @lkilpatrick explained to me on twitter – thanks!) 

Let’s face it – YouTube owns video on the internet. Everything else is just noise. And today, YouTube delivers its video via Flash. But you can bet that an HTML5 – and flash free – version of the site is currently under development. Once the standard is set, and Firefox and Chrome support HTML 5, we’ll see a new, much richer HTML 5 version of YouTube debut. The codec question, too, will evaporate as Google rolls out free versions of the ON2 technology it acquired earlier this year.

YouTube is the 5,000 pound gorilla of web video. They will lead, and the rest of the web world will be compelled to follow. It won’t be eight years this time. By 2011, HTML 5 will be a major, perhaps even dominating force on the internet. And if you’re not ready, you might find yourself shooting in black and white, when everyone else – and definitely Google/YouTube — are in living color.


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