HTML5: Could it kill Flash and Silverlight?

The budding Web spec just might remove the need for proprietary rich Internet app add-ins

HTML5, a groundbreaking upgrade to the prominent Web presentation specification, could become a game-changer in Web application development, one that might even make obsolete such plug-in-based rich Internet application (RIA) technologies as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Sun JavaFX.

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) HTML5 proposal is geared toward Web applications, something not adequately addressed in previous incarnations of HTML, the W3C acknowledges. In other words, HTML5 tackles the gap that Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX are trying to fill.

[ The InfoWorld Test Center investigates how well the new Microsoft Silverlight 3 and Adobe Flex 4, Flash 4, and Catalyst rich Internet technologies measure up. ]

The rich promise of HTML5
"HTML5 is really the second coming of this Web stuff -- of the Web," says Dion Almaer, co-founder of the Ajaxian Web site and co-director of developer tools at Mozilla. The specification boasts capabilities covering video and graphics on the Web, as well as a slew of APIs, Almaer notes.

HTML5 technologies such as Canvas, for 2-D drawing on a Web page, are being promoted by heavyweights in the Internet space such as Apple, Google, and Mozilla. (Although Microsoft itself has given a thumbs-up to certain aspects of HTML5, it has not backed Canvas.)

"HTML5 features like Canvas, local storage, and Web Workers let us do more in the browser than ever before," says Ben Galbraith, also co-founder of the Ajaxian Web site and co-director of developer tools at Mozilla. Local storage enables users to work in a browser when a connection drops and Web Workers makes "next generation" applications incredibly responsive by pushing long-running tasks to the background, he says.

Web applications will become more fun, says Ian Fette, project manager at Google for the Chrome browser: "They're going to be faster and they're just going to provide overall a better user experience and make the distinction between online apps and desktop apps blurred."

HTML5 features already appearing in browsers
After five years of work, a draft of the HTML5 specification was released in 2008. Parts of it are showing up in browsers, but the complete HTML5 work won't be done for years.

"For example, video support is new in HTML5 and new in Firefox 3.5," notes Vlad Vukicevic, technical lead of the Firefox project at Mozilla. Google's new Chrome browser also has some capabilities, including video tags, derived from the HTML5 specification. And Microsoft has several HTML5 features in Internet Explorer 8, such as local storage, AJAX navigation, and mutable DOM prototypes.

Opera supports Canvas and plans to add capabilities such as video to its browser, says Molly E. Holzschlag, a Web evangelist at Opera Software. Meanwhile, Apple supports HTML5 audio and video tags in its Safari browser, as well as the Canvas technology (which it invented).

The case for HTML5: Get rid of proprietary add-ons
While Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems (soon to be Oracle) duke it out with their own technologies to implement multimedia on the Web, HTML5 has the potential to eat these vendors' lunches, offering Web experiences based on an industry standard.

Therefore, Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight could see their turf invaded by HTML5, Almaer says. "Essentially, what it does is lays the groundwork to have equivalent functionality that Flash or Silverlight provides," says RedMonk analyst Michael Cote. It also could threaten JavaFX, he adds.

One of HTML5's goals is to move the Web away from proprietary technologies such as Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX, says Ian Hickson, co-editor of the HTML5 specification. (Hickson is a Google employee, while his co-editor David Hyatt works for Apple.)

"They're single-vendor solutions [and] they don't really fit well into the Web platform," Hickson says. "It's always a problem when you're stuck with a single software provider -- what if they decide to abandon the product you're using? What if they decide to start charging? With an open platform, there's no such risk, since we have true competition, many vendors, and an open standard that anyone can implement."

Hickson adds, "It would be a terrible step backward if humanity's major development platform [the Web] was controlled by a single vendor the way that previous platforms such as Windows have been."

Mozilla wants the Web to stay open and ensure that capabilities such as video are not beholden to corporate entities, says Firefox lead Vukicevic. But whether HTML5 and Canvas displace Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX "really depends on what developers do," he adds.

Lack of support for some HTML5 technologies in the popular Internet Explorer is an issue for developers, says Vukicevic. "The fact that IE doesn't support a lot of these advanced features really holds back Web apps," because developers must instead do extra work such as supporting Microsoft-specific APIs or writing a portion of their application in Flash, he says.

The case for proprietary add-ons: They're better and available today
Although all three companies are involved with the W3C's HTML5 efforts, Microsoft, Adobe, and Sun each defend the need for their technologies.

"HTML5 is still a standard in progress and the makers of it say it will be five to ten years at least before it's done, so it's too early to make any comparisons at this time," a Microsoft spokesperson says. "Silverlight will still be necessary as it provides more advanced features -- such as a richer and faster programming model (C#), 3-D, and out-of-browser capabilities. With those features, Silverlight will ultimately provide a richer Internet experience."

"HTML5 faces many challenges," says Dave Story, vice president of developer tools at Adobe. "The browser market remains highly fragmented, and incompatibilities between browsers reign. The HTML5 timeline states that it will be at least a decade before the evolving HTML5/CSS 3 efforts are finalized, and it remains to be seen what parts will be implemented consistently across all browsers. In the meantime, the Flash platform will continue to deliver a ubiquitous, consistent platform that enables ever richer, more engaging user experiences."

Sun vice president James Gosling, often considered the father of Java, says JavaFX "has much more advanced rendering, performance, and behavior than HTML5."

Analyst Cote sees no immediate threat to these rich Internet app browser plug-ins: "It would take many years to reproduce the functionality in those plug-ins." And he expects the concept of plug-ins to continue to be useful when HTML5 does ship.

Google's Fette agrees. HTML5 is only a starting point, he says, and companies such as Google will add their own advancements, such as the ability to drag and drop images to a browser.

A few industry players may be conflicted
Most companies involved in the HTML5 effort are browser developers or rich Internet application tool developers, but not both. The exception is Microsoft, which therefore is in a difficult situation, says Almaer. The company has heavy investments in trying to propel Silverlight to dominance. "That's a big elephant in the room for them because you can imagine the Silverlight team [whose] whole existence is to add [this] functionality in. [But] if Internet Explorer puts it already in there, why do we have Silverlight?" he asks.

Google may also face some touchy decisions. For example, its YouTube subsidiary uses Flash for its video, but the inclusion of HTML5 capabilities in browsers might cause YouTube to rethink that decision, notes Fette. "It's a cost/benefit analysis that they'd need to make."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.