HTML5 and Publishing: The iPad Effect

The iPad has certainly lived up to the hype that preceded the ‘Jesus tablet’.  The media has talked about nothing else since January and shoppers duly responded by snapping up a million devices in just 28 days.  But the iPad’s impact on publishing extends beyond the tablet itself because when Steve Jobs publicly rejected Adobe’s Flash software a few weeks ago he pushed HTML5 into the mainstream.

What is HTML5?

As you might have guessed, HTML5 is an upgraded version of the current version of HTML, HTML 4.0.1, the markup language used on the internet.  HTML was developed in the 90s when the web consisted mainly of static web pages and because it’s not equipped to handle many of the things we now take for granted – such as Gmail and video – we have to use plug-in programmes like Flash, Flex or Silverlight.  HTML5 is designed to deal with all these new requirements within the browser itself, so you no longer need to download and use these plug in softwares.

Developing this improved version is a huge project which will in time bring all kinds of changes to the way we consume digital content.  The HTML5 version that’s being used right now is a proposed standard still at Working Draft stage; HTML5 as such hasn’t been officially launched and isn’t due to finish for another ten odd years or more. But it’s making headlines now because the part of it that handles rich media – audio, video and animation – and interactive content has been thrust into the limelight by Apple, and to a lesser extent Google, as a viable alternative to the Flash.  And the very fact that HTML5 has won the backing of such high profile digital players means that it may well be finished much faster than is planned.

How Does This Affect Publishers?

HTML5 will have two important implications for publishers.  The first is that as it becomes more popular and Flash less so, creating content in HTML5 will become more important. The second is that HTML5 will bring with it several changes to digital publishing for the web which publishers can take advantage of, chief of which is that interactive and rich media content should be cheaper to produce.  It will also improve the searchability of such content and will be compatible across platforms and devices.

HTML5 vs. Flash

Right now, Flash is installed on roughly 90% of web-connected PCs and is used to view most rich media on the web.  But, because of the issues many content creators and consumers have with Flash – including poor performance, alleged security issues and the fact that it’s a closed proprietary software – several big players are following Apple’s lead in supporting HTML5.   Google has built a new version of YouTube, already in use on the iPad, designed to play its videos in HTML5 rather than Flash. And the big browser companies, Microsoft, Mozilla, Google, Apple and Opera, have all agreed to support HTML5 which means it will be almost universally compatible.   Current versions of Internet Explorer don’t support HTML5 but Microsoft has announced that IE9 will – indeed Dean Hachamovitch, GM of Internet Explorer, recently said that HTML5 is “the future of the web”.   In the publishing sphere, Scribd announced yesterday that it is switching wholesale to HTML5, citing the many benefits to publishers from the removal of “technology barriers”. 

For iPad and iPhone users, there is of course no Flash so, outside the app store, HTML5 is the only option for this type of content.  In the mobile environment, where Flash has always had issues, HTML5’s significantly faster download times will make it much more convenient to access interactive and rich media.  Many smartphones support Flash Lite with full support scheduled by the end of 2010 and, provided they have the right browser, HTML5 too, so it will be interesting to see which users choose.

PC and laptop users will be the least affected, mainly because by contrast Flash works relatively well on these platforms.  In the long run, HTML5 promises to offer them a smoother experience because all content will be hosted within a single environment, with no need for additional software.

The Benefits of HTML5

HTML5 is going to make it easier to search for rich media and interactive content.  Each component of the content, for example an animated sequence which has a ball move from left to right, will be labelled.  That means that an HTML5 file will have a lot of descriptive labels – metadata – for a search engine to read.  By comparison, the only metadata Flash files offer a search engine is the title name. 

HTML5, because it’s browser-based, will work on any device that accesses the internet.  Flash is also cross-platform but because of Steve Job’s opposition, content creators are now faced with the prospect of versioning Flash material for non-Apple and Apple products.

And, because HTML5 is based on open-source standards, creating content for it doesn’t require licences for proprietary software, so it’ll be cheaper too.

What Do Publishers Need to Do? 

For those who want to create browser-based rich media and interactive content for the iPad, or iPhone, HTML5 is the only option.  And those who are working on this type of content for mobiles and were planning to use Flash might want to consider HTML5 as an alternative – probably initially as an additional option to Flash rather than instead of Flash.

For most publishers, though, it’s a question of waiting and watching to see how and how fast HTML5 will develop, and how Flash will respond.  HTML5 is still fairly rudimentary when it comes to interactive and animated content.  Meanwhile, Adobe isn’t going to let HTML5 walk all over Flash without a fight and most developers think it’ll go all out to create a product to outdo HTML5’s offering.

Indeed, the Apple-Adobe battle has only just begun.  Adobe recently announced that it has a new product ‘Packager for the iPhone’ which will allow you to use Flash in Apple apps although it’s not clear exactly how it will work. Apple took Adobe by surprise by releasing an update to the iPhone SDK just days before the release of Flash CS5 that indicates that iPhone or iPad apps that are not developed using Apple’s tools will not be permitted in the App Store. Adobe has since announced that they will stop development of their packaging for iPhone tool for CS5 updates.

For now it’s a matter of watching the sparks fly, and waiting for the dust to settle.

Below are a couple of HTML5 demos – try them in Firefox:

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