Good-bye Google Gears, hello HTML5

Google's decision to transition its applications to Web standards offers telling insight into the HTML5 standardization process

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It seems clear now that the Gears technology was always intended as a blueprint for a future HTML specification. And Google hasn't been the only W3C contributor to take this "implement first, standardize later" approach. Mozilla and Opera have both implemented browser-specific CSS properties, for example, and both implementations have influenced the current formal CSS specifications.

As for Almaer, after leaving Google he would go on to lead the Mozilla Foundation's Developer Tools Lab and later headed up developer relations for Palm's HTML-centric WebOS platform. Increasingly, "lead by example" has been the watchword of the Web standards ecosystem.

Chasing the standards
If Google's voice has been especially loud in guiding the HTML5 specification, however, it should be commended for putting its money where its mouth is. Google is implementing the new standard not just in the Chrome browser, but in its Web applications as well. The search giant dropped support for Gears in Google Docs and Google Reader in May 2010, anticipating an HTML5-enabled version of each product to come.

Yet the "implement first, standardize later" approach that has guided Web standards of late hasn't always been successful. For example, Adobe was early to implement many features of ECMAScript 4, a revision of the standard that forms the basis of the JavaScript programming language and its derivatives, including the ActionScript scripting language used in Adobe's Flash platform. But the ECMAScript 4 effort foundered amid much debate and was eventually scrapped. Where once Adobe sought parity with JavaScript, today it is saddled with an ActionScript language that resembles its cousin in most respects, but that diverges in enough ways to make it incompatible with the modern JavaScript standard.

The planned replacement for Gears, the HTML5 Web Storage API, seems to be off to a similarly rocky start. Modern browsers that implement the standard do so in ways that are often subtly inconsistent. For example, Firefox 4 supports Web storage even for HTML documents loaded from the local drive, while Internet Explorer 9 invokes Web storage only for documents loaded from an HTTP URI. IE9 also handles storage events differently than other browsers. It may be some time before Web applications that take advantage of local storage behave consistently across all clients.

How well Google manages to transition its applications from Gears to HTML5 will be an important test of the most significant revision to Web standards since 2001. Recently YouTube -- a Google subsidiary -- experimented with transitioning its streaming video service from Flash to HTML5, but relented when it determined that the Web standards-based approach would not be compatible with a broad enough range of clients. The W3C's recent decision to remove version numbering from the HTML specifications and treat HTML as a "living standard" suggests that while the HTML5 spec is nearing completion, HTML's greatest challenge may be yet to come.

This article, "Good-bye Google Gears, hello HTML5," was originally published at Track the latest developments in programming at, and for the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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