HTML 5 versus Silverlight and Flash, again

The impact of this platform battle on companies in the media and advertising world, and the developers who serve them, is significant. The most prominent question is whether video and rich media online will shift towards pure HTML and away from plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. In fact, certain features in HTML 5 make it suitable for development for line of business applications as well, further threatening those plug-in technologies. So what's the deal? Is this real or hype?

So what's new in HTML 5? The specification documents go into deep detail, and there's no sense in rehashing them here, but a summary is probably in order. Here is a non-authoritative, but useful, list of the major new feature areas in HTML 5.

  • 2D drawing capabilities and 3D transforms: 2D drawing instructions can be embedded statically into a Web page; application interactivity and animation can be achieved through script. 3D transforms are technically part of version 3 of the CSS spec, rather than HTML 5, but they can nonetheless be thought of as part of the bundle. They allow for rendering of 3D images and animations that, together with 2D drawing, make HTML-based games much more feasible than they are presently.
  • Embedded audio and video: A media player can appear directly in a rendered Web page, using HTML markup and no plug-ins. Alternatively, player controls can be hidden and the content can play automatically.
  • Major enhancements to form-based input: This includes such things as specification of required fields, embedding of text "hints" into a control, limiting valid input on a field to dates, email addresses or a list of values. There's more to this, but the gist is that line-of-business applications, with complicated input and data validation, are supported directly
  • Offline caching, local storage and client-side SQL database: These facilities allow Web applications to function more like native apps, even if no Internet connection is available.
  • User-defined data: Data (or metadata - data about data) can easily be embedded statically and/or retrieved and updated with Javascript code. This avoids having to embed that data in a separate file, or within script code.

Taken together, these features position HTML to compete with, and perhaps overtake, Adobe's Flash/AIR (and Microsoft's Silverlight) as a viable Web platform for media, RIAs (rich internet applications - apps that function more like desktop software than Web sites) and interactive Web content, including games.

HTML 5 looks to be disruptive, especially to the media world. And even if the technology ends up disappointing, the chatter around it alone is causing big changes in the technology world. If the richness it promises delivers, then magazine publishers and non-text digital advertisers may indeed have a platform for creating compelling content that loads quickly, is standards-based and will render identically in (the newest versions of) all major Web browsers. Can this development in the digital arena save the titans of the print world? I can't predict, but it's going to be fun to watch, and the competitive innovation from all players in both industries will likely be immense.

The competition between the Web and proprietary rich platforms, including Windows, Mac OS, iPhone/iPad, Adobe Flash/AIR and Microsoft Silverlight, is not new. But with the emergence of HTML 5 and imminent support for it in the next release of the major Web browsers, the battle is heating up.

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