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HTML5 from a Mobile Perspective

By Jason Grigsby

Published on July 22nd, 2009


I’ve read with interest the controversy following the W3C’s decision to not renew the XHTML 2 Working Group charter. For those unfamiliar with the jargon of standards organizations, this means that XHTML 2 is effectively dead. In its place as the future of web development stands HTML5.

The comments about HTML5, and the potential for its future have been surprising. I hadn’t realized how working on mobile has changed my perspective.

At the risk of being accused of wearing mobile-tinted glasses, HTML5 is going to big a deal and it will be relevant much sooner than people think.

The main complaint against HTML5 is the lack of extensibility. In particular, the ability for developers to define new semantic markup that provide meaning to a document.

The need for this meaning is what created microformats which describe standard ways of presenting information like addresses in markup so that they can be understood programmatically.

The best description of this extensibility problem can be found in John Allsop’s article from A List Apart. John points out that:

This is not simply a theoretical problem. Hundreds of thousands of developers use the class and id attributes of HTML to create more richly semantic markup… Almost invariably, those developers use ad hoc vocabularies—that is, values they have made up, rather than values taken from existing schemas. It’s pseudo semantic markup at best.

HTML5 does add new elements like header, nav, article, section, aside, and footer which expand the structural definition of a page, but do not provide the level of extensibility that people have been seeking.

The complaints about extensibility are legitimate, but the perspective is one that still looks at HTML as a document publishing markup language. John Allsop wrote:

There is a very real problem that needs to be solved here. We need mechanisms in HTML that clearly and unambiguously enable developers to add richer, more meaningful semantics—not pseudo semantics—to their markup. This is perhaps the single most pressing goal for the HTML 5 project.

This is a very telling indication of the perspective that John is coming from. He is looking at HTML as a document publishing and noting correctly that it lacks the tools it needs to describe the documents sufficiently.

I can see these short-comings, but feel that addressing the short-comings of HTML for web applications is the more pressing need—especially when it comes to being able to build rich web applications for mobile devices.

It seems like this may be the main disconnect between the developers of the HTML5 specification and its critics. The specification that eventually became HTML5 started out as the Web Applications 1.0 specification. Its sibling document was Web Form 2.0. Both of these have been merged into HTML5.

The WHATWG, which has been leading the effort to define HTML5, has stated that it “focuses primarily on the development of HTML and APIs needed for Web applications.” With that mission in mind, HTML5 is a substantial step forward.

(As an aside, John Allsop is right that ARIA support in HTML5 would give developers much of what they need, and I have yet to read a good argument against adopting it. I just don’t find it to be as pressing as the other things HTML5 includes.)

HTML5 is a critical step for mobile web application development. Some of the key elements that it provides are:

  • Offline Support — The AppCache and Database make it possible for mobile developers to store thing locally on the device and now that interruptions in connectivity will not affect the ability for someone to get their work done.
  • Canvas and Video — These two features are designed to make it easy to add graphics and video to a page without worrying about plugins. When supported by the phone’s hardware, as is the case with the iPhone, they provide a powerful ways to get media into a page.
  • GeoLocation API — This is actually not part of HTML5, but is a separate specification. That said, it is often bundled together because the mobile phones that are including HTML5 are generally supporting the GeoLocation API.
  • Advanced Forms — Even simple things like the improvements in HTML5 for forms could make life easier for mobile applications. Fields that can be validated by the browser are improvements for mobile devices. The more that can be handled by the browser means less time downloading javascript code and less round trips to the server if validation can be found before the form is posted.

Most importantly, nearly all of the hybrid applications frameworks—Phone Gap, QuickConnect, RhoMobile, Titanium Mobile, and others—rely on HTML5 features to provide a rich application experience.

For these reasons and many more, I believe the adoption of HTML5 will be driven by the needs of mobile, not the needs of desktop developers.

Many people dismiss HTML5 as something they won’t have to worry about for some time. A commenter on Zeldman’s blog wrote:

None of this really matters until:

  1. IE supports whatever new standard we decide on
  2. IE no longer has the majority of the market share

This is why mobile will drive HTML5 adoption. The iPhone, Google Android, Nokia, and the Palm Pre are all based on the open source Webkit browser engine. Those phones represent somewhere around 65% of smart phones sold.

(Note: it is too earlier to find estimates the percentage of Q2 smart phone sales. A lot changed in Q2 which is why older market share breakdowns are not as useful.)

The two major platforms not using Webkit are Windows Mobile and Blackberry. Some of the capabilities of HTML5 are available to Windows Mobile users via the Google Gears plugin.

It also remains to be seen if Microsoft will have a viable mobile strategy. At the moment, it doesn’t look good for the future of this platform as HTC, which is currently responsible for 80% of Windows Mobile sales, is rumored to expect Android to comprise 50% of the units it ships in 2010.

Therefore, the real barrier to HTML5 adoption is RIM’s Blackberry platform.

Blackberry has its own specialized browser not built on any of the major browser engines. It only recently started handling html, css and javascript reasonably well, but still is insufficient and buggy compared to other browsers.

Fortunately, for both Windows Mobile and Blackberry, Opera’s browser is both available and popular. It is consistently one of the top if not the top download on mobile applications sites. And Opera is one of the leading developers of HTML5.

Finally, if you look past mobile phones to other mobile devices like the iPod Touch, Nokia’s internet devices, and the upcoming Google Chrome, you see that Webkit is even more broadly distributed.

To be clear, just because a device uses webkit does not mean that it has the latest version of Webkit and can use HTML5. Recognizing the market share of Webkit is important solely as an indicator that a significant portion of smart phones will have access to HTML5 sometime in the near future.

There is great incentive for mobile operating system vendors to upgrade to the latest versions of Webkit. They see the success that the iPhone has had and the fact that one of the main contributors to that success was the browsing experience. They understand that not many companies can afford to develop native applications for all of the various platforms which makes the features of HTML5 attractive.

Because of this, I expect browser improvements to be a high priority for mobile operating systems.

HTML5 needs to move past simply providing geolocation and offline storage and into more of the device characteristics. The Palm Pre’s WebOS has had to forge forward in defining its own APIs for accessing things like the address book, camera, and accelerometer.

I had an opportunity to ask Michael Abbott, Palm’s Senior Vice President responsible for WebOS, about the use of standards for mobile devices characteristics. His response was that they used standards where they could, but that there were no standards for much of what they wanted to do.

This problem is only going to continue to become more pressing. People are clamoring to develop mobile applications that take full advantage of the the capabilities of devices.

It is important to note that while HTML5 will be very important for smart phones, it won’t reach feature phones for sometime. Therefore, content publishers should continue to work with device databases for content adaptation.

Again, web application developers can make different choices and tradeoffs than content publishers. If you are building an application that combines cameras with geolocation information, you’ve already narrowed which handsets you support.

Remember how easy it was to convince people to move from HTML working drafts to HTML 3.2? Now compare that to the education process necessary to convince people to convert to XHTML.

Part of the difference is due to the times, but a large part of it was due to the fact that you could do things in HTML3.2 that you couldn’t do in previous versions.

That’s not to say that recent web standards like XHTML haven’t provided new features, but that none of the new features were game changers. GeoLocation is a feature that can create businesses. The same is true of access to other device characteristics.

For this reason, web developers who start looking at mobile development will not shy away from building using HTML5 even if it limits their audience.

From a mobile perspective—and perhaps from the perspective of web applications generally—HTML5 cannot come quickly enough.

As Vic Gundotra, Google Engineering vice president and developer evangelist, recently pointed out, not many companies are rich enough to develop native applications for all mobile platforms.

The mobile web provides are the best hope for building a cross-device mobile ecosystem. HTML5 is a critical piece for the mobile web.


futtta said:

It’s weird (to say the least) that Google is actively promoting html5, while html5-native geolocation, localstorage, localdb and appcache are not available in the android browser (tested on android 1.5 with the browser based on AppleWebKit/528.5+). Guess they expect developers to code for both html5 and gears (which offers similar functionality with a different api)?

Same remark for Palm; their MOJO-framework indeed uses (and extends) html5, but these functionalities are not available in the WebOS browser for websites to use (tested on WebOS 1.0 with browser based on applewebkit 525.27.1 in the SDK emulator). And Palm doesn’t have gears as a fallback, so no advanced web-apps for the Pré at all I guess?

Silone said:

Great post Jason, I really enjoyed reading through your arguments.
I share your opinion that mobiles are the future developing hot spot and therefore html5 has a big demand.

However, as read on quirksmode, the thing which gives me the most headaches is the question about all the phones who aren’t html5 capable.
Browser updating isn’t any fun on a smart phone and I can’t imagine how to upgrade a typical phone with browser.

The big goal with html5 may also be a generation of browsers which do really enduserfriendly featureupdates on all platforms, especially on mobiles.

louenas said:

The blackberry 6 ships with Webkit as the default browser. I used jQuery, jQTouch, Json, XSLT, Canvas, Web storage, Sqlite, etc. and all worked as expected. They even support Html5 worker! They don’t support connection awareness yet though 🙁
The great thing developers don’t know and that RIM has not marketed enough is the “Blackberry widgets” technology. Beginning from Blackberry 5, this technology allows web developers to build native apps using Javascript/CSS/Html. They event allow cross domain scripting provided that you declare a white list of allowed domains in you Blackberry widgets project.
thanks RIM