We wanted cat videos — so we got HTML5

HTML is widely known as the human readable language powering all Websites. It is intended as a universal language, but in 1998 the Web Standards Project was formed as a response to browser developers constantly introducing new elements to get a head of each other. Perhaps you remember the days, not so long ago, when something only worked in Internet Explorer?

The 5th version, HTML5, was formally released as a standard back in 2014 with the goal to improve the language behind websites with support for multimedia, while keeping it easily readable by humans. It has made life easier for a lot of people; allowing everyone to watch videos on numerous platforms on Iphones, without suffering the dawdling of flash. But perhaps that is the most positive aspect of HTML5? The 24 hour multi device access to cat videos?

Dutch-based Internet pioneer Steven Pemberton is a keynote speaker at the J. Boye Philadelphia 16 conference with a provocatively titled keynote: HTML5 is the new Flash. In short, Steven has his doubts about HTML5:

“I don’t believe that HTML5 can lead the web to it’s full potential”

No matter how many immediate problems and fixes something provides, we have to look at the larger picture; how does HTML5 affect the future of the web?

Functionality throws the standard out the window

HTML5 has largely removed the need for Flash, making video less demanding for mobile devices.

In just a few years, it has accommodated the progression from the web being mostly a place for desktops, to today where it is a mecca for mobile devices with an emphasis on video. Removing the need for small devices to run several demanding coding languages.

The development of the web is moving ever faster — translating into we want cat videos now. Functions are added at a higher paste, and the coding language needs to support this. But Steven Pemberton points to an inherent problem:

“One of the problems with using programming as the basis of functionality is that standardisation flies out the window.”

This also focus on immediate functionality also results in very large specs which are mostly comprehensible for programmers. This means programmers writing to other programmers, shutting the door on amateurs and the technologically disenfranchised third world alike.

Do we want a Web that works in 2116–100 years from now?

The only prediction I will venture about the web, is that it is here to stay. This is why standards are important. We don’t know how video and websites will function in 15 years, so we need a language that can be build upon and expanded. But we also need a language that can be a link between our past, our present and our future. Violating the standard endangers this, a concern Steven Pemberton expresses both harshly and precisely:

“The web is the way now that we distribute information. We will need the web pages we create now to be readable in 100 years time, just as we can still read 100-year-old books. Requiring a webpage to depend on a particular 100-year-old implementation of Javascript is not exactly evidence of future-thinking.”

How do we get back on track for a better Web?

There used to be a Web Standard Project, but this was terminated 3 years ago. They felt the war had ended, that the standard had won, and we could all go home. Unfortunately, as we can now see from the learnings about HTML5, this seems to be very far from the truth.

Among the industry pundits and J. Boye members alike, there is a wide recognition of both the need and importance of more industry standards. But when it comes to how we maintain this standard the opinions differ greatly, as can be seen in this recent Facebook posting by Molly E. Holzschlag, where the termination of the Web Standards Project is debated vigorously.