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HTML5: Should You Care?

POSTED BY Zak Menkel on May 17, 2012

The rumor is that HTML5 is going to save the world. Brand and marketing folks are convinced that this new technology is going to obliterate the barriers between them and the web experience of their dreams. It’s going to be sexy, streamlined, and seamless across all devices.

They’re right. Mostly. Eventually.

Before it becomes the next misunderstood buzzword, let’s take a moment to ask why it matters. HTML5 is—as reported—quite badass, but it’s not exactly new technology. In fact, it’s not really a technology at all. HTML5 is the fifth iteration of a standard governing the primary codebase (HTML) used to build websites. That standard is what defines the common language – the molecular pieces – from which all the complexity of the internet grows.

So what’s the fuss about? The internet works pretty damn well right? HTML5 is a big deal because HTML4 is 15 years old. Do you remember what the internet looked like 15 years ago? No YouTube, no Facebook, no Netflix, no iTunes, no smartphones. Video Chat was science fiction, the cloud was just something that prevented you from getting a tan. There has been nothing short of a revolution in the way we use the internet over the last decade and a half, and the old standard has been pushed beyond its breaking point to accommodate the demands we’re putting on it.

Before we throw a parade, let’s remember that HTML5 is a means to an end. As with any new tool, what matters is what we can do with it.

Fundamentally, HTML5 is striving to get the technology of the web out of the way, so that you can enjoy (and we can create) hassle-free online experiences.

So there’s a lot to be excited about, just ask any developer (if you speak developer). But what do all these tags and elements and APIs and style sheets actually mean to your average Joe User or your average business? It means your online experience can be faster and simpler. It means building great web experiences will be cheaper and easier. It means we can begin to expect even more from the almighty internet.

UNDERSTANDING THE BENEFITS

Faster: Part of the reason websites chug and freeze and bog down is because they’re trying to serve you content that they weren’t really built for—like videos, music, animations or heavy graphics. Doing that heavy lifting requires some clunky (albeit genius) workarounds, all of which make your computer flex more muscles to load a page. HTML5 is designed specifically to work with this type of content without requiring any plugins or workarounds. This means your cute cat videos will load faster and play more smoothly, even on slower devices or over weaker connections.

Simpler: The internet no longer lives solely on our computers. Its infamous tubes have snaked their way into phones, TVs, cameras, cars and more places by the day. Most of us use multiple browsers on multiple devices to perform many different and complex functions - sometimes simultaneously. In short, we expect the internet to work harder for us on a wider variety of playing fields. We expect businesses to provide multiple online experiences to cater to our many devices and unpredictable appetites. If you are that business, you currently have 2 choices: build to the lowest common denominator, or fork out to build multiple sites.

This is where HTML5’s single most potent weapon comes into play—Interoperability. The goal (and we’re getting closer every day) is to build one site, exactly the way you want it, and have it be smart enough to adapt to whatever device or browser is accessing it. You get a consistent experience across different browsers or devices, and, suddenly your iPhone can talk to your laptop, which can then chat up your camera, which can then whisper to your Facebook account, all without it turning into a bad game of telephone.

Cheaper: When you can build one site that takes the place of several, or one app instead of one for each phone type, you can reach your consumers in more places for less money. You can then spend your money making your online experiences more awesome instead of just more usable.

Easier: Just as the introduction of steel beams opened up a whole world of architectural possibilities, HTML5 is crossing things off the “can’t do” list. We can design around the content and the interactions we want to have instead of trying to fit them into what we can build. Removing these functional constraints will allow us to build the new skyscrapers of the web—sites that are more functional, more efficient, and more creative.

Exceeding our expectations: To quote web guru Jeffrey Zeldman on the importance of HTML5: "On one level it doesn't matter… a website just works and that's what a consumer expects.” He’s right, except that raising our expectations about technology ultimately drives us towards greater innovation. One gross but true oversimplification of HTML5 is that it enables websites (on almost any browser or operating system) to things that used to require proprietary or purpose-built applications. It’s expanding our imaginations about what the web can do—it can stream videos, play games, have GPS. It can adapt to its environment and to the people using it. All this requires a tremendous amount of technical wizardry and hardware, but this is becoming less and less apparent to the end user—and even to web designers like ourselves. The web is coming into its own as a truly creative medium because the science is finally catching up to the science fiction. HTML5 is enabling that complex technology to fade into the background so that experiences “that just work” can take center stage.

SOME REALLY COOL STUFF (that we didn’t build)

Currently, HTML5 is in a middle ground between the norm and the bleeding edge. It’s stable and proven, but some of its most potent applications are still being explored or may not be fully supported by some devices and browsers. This will not be the case for long. Look for more examples like these that push the frontiers of what a website is.

The website as multi-media experience: The Wilderness Downtown is a music video for an Arcade Fire song that is much more than a video. It uses Google Earth APIs to personalize the video to you and does things with your browser that would make Internet Explorer 6 blush.

The website as productivity software: Wunderkit is a “social productivity tool.” That enables you and your coworkers to remotely collaborate on a creative endeavor (like a design project). Not mind blowing until you realize that this is enterprise level software that runs through your browser in real time.

The website as classroom: Khan Academy is redefining online learning (by making it interactive, fun and genuinely effective).

The website as interactive storytelling: www.slaveryfootprint.org creates a personalized story based on your input to bring home the disturbing prevalence of human slavery in our modern world.

The website as artistic canvas: Cloth Experiment, by Andrew Hoyer is a simple but awesome demonstration of the ability of HTML5 sites to enable you to create and use unique artistic mediums in a web browser. It also shows how we are blurring the lines between designer/developer and coder/artist.

PUTTING HTML5 INTO PRACTICE

OMD.com

We worked with global media giant OMD on a comprehensive rebrand. We created a dynamic identity that shifts forms and is always in motion. It would have been a shame to apply that cool new brand to a static website. So we built them a site that leverages some of HTML’s unique video capabilities—the entire site background is a video that you “play” by scrolling down the page.

HornallAnderson.com

We recently used HTML5 to redo our own website. The new site gives us the flexibility to incorporate video and rich media in ways that better showcase our work. The experience renders adaptively, with content and layout adjusting automatically to screen size and browser capabilities.

So, do I need to update my site?”

Probably. Maybe. It depends.

There is little doubt that your website could be working harder for you. Sites are not brochures anymore: the way people interact with you online is as much a part of your brand as what you say or what you look like. But you don’t need a new website simply because there is a new way to build them now. HTML5 and other tools can help you create richer experiences that are (hopefully) more future-proof, but they are only effective when they’re serving a higher purpose for your brand. Before you think about what kind of site you can make, think about the kind of experience you want people to have. Hopefully, as HTML5 and other tools continue to evolve, we will continue to close that gap between what we can imagine and what we can create.

WRITTEN BY Zak Menkel

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Zak Menkel

May 31, 2012 at 2:48pm

Thanks for the comment Stephanie. I agree that it's vital to understand your users and the technology they have access to. To clarify for any non-techie folks on the thread, HTML5 is not a "technology" that people have or don't have, it's just a set of standards for writing code. However, certain web browsers (or more accurately, older versions of some web browsers) have trouble rendering HTML5 in some cases.

When building a site, we always weigh the benefits of new technology against the costs of excluding users on older browsers. In some cases, we can detect what hardware and software our users are running, and if we know it's an older version, we can provide them with a down-level site experience that is optimized for their browser. Other times, we decide that we're not willing to compromise the web experience just to accommodate a small number of users running dated browsers.

Stephanie Lucas

May 29, 2012 at 9:15am

Html 5 is great. Although I have found in doing development and design that you really have to know what your user is using. Html 5 is all the buzz, but checking what the norm is, most of your users are using something a lot less sophisticated.

May 17, 2012 at 3:29pm

Microsoft's drinking the Kool-Aid too: http://mashable.com/2012/05/16/prometheus-html5-ie/
Nice write-up!

Jason Porter

May 17, 2012 at 11:19am

Good piece; "Probably. Maybe. It depends." hits the nail on the head.