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On the HTML5 “revolution”

I’ve often heard HTML5 – or “HTML5″/ NEWT – being described as a revolution. It’s not.

I can see why people make the mistake. Some of the demos that are going around are so amazing that they feel like a break with the past (and some of those demos are good old DHTML: nothing new at all). Also, revolutions are fun, they have goodies and baddies. There are heroes and comrades, and there’s an element of year-zeroism: “burn the museums”, said the Futurists.

But HTML5 is not revolutionary. It’s deliberately and passionately evolutionary. While XHTML2 broke backwards compatibility with its own year-zeroism, HTML5 evolves the Web. As Ian Hickson said seven years ago yesterday:

My favorite topic is backwards compatibility…we want a backwards-compatible solution that we can deploy with current or soon-to-be-released browser. Web applications already exist, and for example. Documents are becoming interactive as well. But if you view SVG or XForms in today’s browsers, you get just text, and nothing works. What we mean by backwards compatible is stuff that works in today’s browsers.…Another reason to be backwards compatible is that authors already know HTML and JavaScript. In conclusion, a solution based on HTML is better than one that isn’t.
W3C Workshop on Web Applications and Compound Documents (Day 1) Jun 1, 2004

The purpose of HTML5 is to evolve the Web using and extending familiar technologies while preserving backwards compatibility. We see this with the design of <video> that allows fallback content with older browsers; the fact that all new input types degrade to type=text so users of older browsers can still enter data—and look at the cunning way <datalist> is designed to be be able to swap into a select in older browsers. See how feature-detection is built into the spec.

The WHATG Charter describes it:

All specifications produced by this working group must take into account backwards compatibility, and clearly specify reasonable transition strategies for authors. They must also specify error handling behaviour to ensure interoperability even in the face of documents that do not comply with the letter of the specification.

“Reasonable transition strategies”. I’ll bet Trotsky never said anything like that.

Heroes of the Evolution

Evolutions aren’t as sexy as Revolutions, but they still throw up heroes. These people don’t necessarily get the attention they deserve: people like John Foliot, using a decade’s experience to ensure that HTML5 is accessible. Or Steve Faulkner, doing the unglamorous research that’s enabling us to map HTML5 and WAI-ARIA.

There’s my co-author, Remy Sharp, coder of the original HTML5 Shiv and inventor of the term Polyfilling to describe a method of coding to the boring old evolutionary Standards and letting JavaScript fill the holes in older browsers. Paul Irish and Faruk Ateş made Modernizr which takes the feature-detection and makes it user-friendly.

Silvia Pfeiffer does loads of work with her colleagues on the HTML Media Working Group to bring about easy-to-author, robust, open video and audio to the web that has accessibility built-in. And there are many, many more Heroes of the Evolution explaining and educating, like my fellow HTML5 Doctors who give their time and expertise voluntarily (I get paid to do it).

Vive l’evolution!

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12 Responses to “ On the HTML5 “revolution” ”

Comment by Lennie

I totally agree with that HTML5/CSS3 and co is not a revolution, but an evolution from HTML4, xforms, SVG and more.

But I think what people mean is that what you can do with it and what people are doing with it is a small revolution.

People think webtechnologies might be a revolution against Microsoft Desktop Monopoly or mobile-apps store oppression or W3C-XHTML ideas.

And that is what gets people excited.

Or atleast I’m existed. 🙂

There are lot of new things to report every time as well.

Here is an other example of something which will now go into most browsers P2P Voice/Video:

Comment by Tomas

Its good that its going forward and people working on it. It work good for “standard” sites. The boring part is that standards and compatibility progress is so very slow. I thought the point of HTML5/CSS3/Javascript was to simplify crossbrowser problems, but with different solutions and implementations its still hard. Most of demos have requirement of this/that browser. Demos often look like Flash for 10 years ago. If you look at the Flash API these web standards look simple and unnecessary complex. Hard to know the performance in each browser. “HTML5” seems to be the answer to everything but in reality it isn’t.

Comment by Lennie

@Tomas I think this is because it is all still very new, it takes some time for an industry to got to know a spec and make tools/libraries/best practices which make it easier. It will also take some time for most if not all browsers to support the important stuff.

Personally I’m waiting for IE6 to die. 🙁 in August it will be 10 years old and it will take atleast an other year to die.

If you are used to do things with Flash then have a look at something like that should look familair.

Comment by Alain Couthures

Actually, XForms is still a superset of HTML5 forms so one could say that XForms is an evolution of HTML5!

XForms would already be dead if HTML5 forms were good enough for effective enterprise applications.

I hope that XForms will be integrated in HTML6!

Comment by Billee D.

Well put, sir. When I picture a revolution, images of angry peasants storming the castle come to mind. Contrary to what some would have us believe, HTML5 and company feels more evolutionary than revolutionary. Thanks for putting it out there.

Comment by Chris Blown

Ahh good-ole DHTML I had to smile reading that.

The best part of HTML5 for me is the fact that most modern browsers behave the same way when dealing with invalid or bad markup. Not mine obviously.. other peoples.

Comment by George Katsanos

Bruce, Bruce!
Let us enjoy it a little bit. I would kind of go for “revolution” instead, as it’s been so long since we had such a radical change in the web. What I also find revolutionary is the vendors support in this. When I see MS doing steps forward for example. (regardless of the “native” randomness).
Plus, it’s sexier 🙂

Comment by Paul Vanderveen

The comment about XForms being replaced by HTML5 shows that XForms is still very much misunderstood. HTML5 forms do not address many of the problems that XForms solves. XForms is not replaced by HTML5, but it can benefit by the improvements in javascript and HTML.

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