Friday, June 26, 2009

HTML5: The OS Killer?

By allowing the Web to become a universal operating system, and making mobile devices more powerful than low-end laptops, HTML5 (also sometimes referred to as Web Applications 1.0) is transforming IT more profoundly than any development since the advent of the Internet. As HTML 5 becomes the widely-adopted standard for authoring on the Web, it will radically transform the IT landscape.

The Web Applications 1.0 (WA1) specification updates HTML, but that’s not all it does. WA1 also defines several application programming interfaces (APIs) that have been de facto standards, and adds new ones. WA1 improves on the abilities to use the web as an application platform by adding things such as document state storage in the browser history, local data storage, offline browsing, drag and drop, copy and paste, undo and redo history, cross document messaging, and more.

Unlike XHTML2, which doesn’t have any support from browser vendors, HTML5 has support from all the major browser vendors except Microsoft.

HTML5 is almost the Holy Grail, offering the ability to run applications regardless of the underlying operating system. While the browser isn't more important than operating system today, Google this week firmly suggested it is only a matter of time.

At its developer conference, Google demonstrated HTML5 applications support inside future versions of its Chrome browser and the future Android 2.0 operating system. Mozilla executives also promised HTML5 support inside the forthcoming Firefox 3.5 browser.

Google demonstrated how HTML5 allows tighter integration of browsers and applications, such as its Google Web Elements. Developers will be able to add applications to web sites by adding only a few lines of HTML5 code, much as they already do with Google Web Elements.

The rate of browser innovation is accelerating, with new browser releases nearly every other month. The progress towards the level of UI functionality found in desktop apps through adoption of HTML 5 features in browsers has been quite rapid. It's also fascinating to see how mobile browsers are in the forefront of the innovation.

The technology is here even if the standards committees haven't caught up. Developers are taking notice of these new features, and aren't waiting for formal approval. That's as it should be. As workers on the web today, we reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.

Support by four major browsers adds up to "rough consensus" in my book. We're seeing running code at Google I/O, and I'd imagine the 4000 developers in attendance will soon be producing a lot more.

Never underestimate the web. We believed that web apps would never rival desktop apps. What was once thought impossible is now commonplace.

Java was supposed to raise apps above the level of the operating system, offering cross-platform "write once, run everywhere" applications that would break the coupling between an application and a specific operating system. Proponents predicted Windows would become less important with the rise of Java apps.

While Java has accomplished a great deal, it's potential as an OS-killer has not been realized. HTML5 has a better shot.

What does this mean for users?

HTML5 is a standard that is still being developed and is likely to remain so for several years. Its focus on running applications within the browser is an important driver of interest in cloud computing, where applications live somewhere off on the Internet and are delivered by the browser.

The focus of future browsers will shift from "going places" to "doing things." This will be a boon to free operating systems, which will increasingly be able to hide themselves under the browser user interface. While Windows and Mac OSX won't go away overnight, the pressure on them will be to innovate beyond the browser, perhaps through a common set of extensions for HTML5 applications to use.

It is too early to start betting against desktop operating systems from the major vendors. However, it is clear their role and importance is likely to change--and probably diminish--as browsers become dominant in users' lives.

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