As we count down the final hours of 2011 and prepare to celebrate with family, food, and fun, it's time to look over our shoulder and remember what made the last year important. What events defined 2011? Sure, there are political and sports and entertainment stories galore, but I'm more interested in our common friend, HTML5. What did 2011 mean for HTML5?

From where I sit, reviewing 2011 reveals the ascendency of HTML5.

Slow Simmer Turns to a Boil

The rise of HTML5 did not happen overnight, or even in a single year. You might say "HTML5," or more generally, the reinvigorated web standards development stack, began its slow crawl out of developer purgatory in 2004, when Apple, Mozilla, and Opera all teamed-up to create the WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group…rolls right off the tongue). WHATWG stepped away from the lumbering W3C to revive the interest and progress in evolving HTML as a technology that addresses the needs of real app development.

But that was 2004 and this is 2011. We're seven long years from the foundation of WHATWG and the beginnings of HTML5. Why are we only now seeing the meteoric rise in HTML5 interest? Why didn't HTML5 demand more attention in 2009 or 2010? What delayed HTML5's take-off? Three things:

1. Browsers

It's important to remember that HTML5, itself an umbrella term for many individual web standards, is at the end of the day nothing more than a "recommendation." HTML5 is not a product being developed by Google or Apple or Microsoft. It's not a "thing" that will ship next year. It's a clearly defined suggestion for how browser authors should make their browsers work.

Therefore, when talking about any delay in HTML5 adoption, browsers are front and center. Developers and users depend on browsers to deliver the support for HTML5 necessary to make the technology usable.

Browsers have been slowly adding HTML5 support for years, but absent strong competition, browsers like Firefox, Opera, and Internet Explorer were content to focus on evolving the "chrome" of the browser (tabs, extensions, built-in search, etc.) instead of the underlying HTML and JavaScript engines.

It took the introduction of a dynamic new browser in 2008- ironically enough called Chrome- that primarily focused on nuts-and-bolts of the web to really get all browsers thinking about the importance of HTML5.

2. AJAX

AJAX? A reason that delayed the ascendency of HTML5? Yes.

When Jesse James Garrett famously coined "AJAX" in 2005, it became the singular obsession of web developers for the next four years. Everything and everyone was focused on AJAX. Developers were happy if they could just add some AJAX to make things a little bit more awesome.

As a byproduct, the work being done on HTML5 during this time was largely obscured. Was it happening? Definitely! Things like Local Storage, Semantic Tags, Canvas, and Cross-Document Messaging were all being discussed as early as 2005 in WHATWG's "Web Applications 1.0" draft spec.

Of course, most of these HTML5 things also lacked browser support in 2005, but the interest in AJAX in many ways sucked the air out of the room, suffocating HTML5 interest well in to 2009. Now, AJAX is old news- everyone that wants it has it- and there is air in the room again to talk about the next wave of "Web 3.0" (have we reached a new major version?) technology.

3. Plug-ins

When you talk about HTML5 as an app platform, you're really talking about delivering "rich" software through a web browser (let's set aside new approaches to "packaged" HTML5 for now). That's the allure. The ability to build rich software that runs everywhere, that doesn't require an install, and that you can quickly evolve via centralized, automatic updates.

For a long time, though, when HTML and JavaScript hit their limits, the browser plug-ins (Flash, Silverlight, and even Java) stepped-up to fill the gap.

Plug-ins offered most of the benefits of HTML apps- software delivered through a browser, easily updatable, runs (mostly) everywhere, and, other than the initial plug-in installation, doesn't require installs for specific apps. So, much like AJAX, plug-ins stifled the interest in HTML5. Why search for HTML5 when plug-ins handle the problem of rich, browser-based software?

Developers needed a reason to look past plug-ins for HTML5 to be interesting. That reason arrived with the HTML5 spark.

HTML5's Spark: Apple & Chrome

Apple and Chrome helped spark major interest in HTML5 by pushing the work that had been done on HTML5 while everyone was playing with AJAX to the forefront. This happened in 2007 when Apple unveiled and shipped the original iPhone, and then in 2008 with the introduction of the Chrome browser by Google.

If you recall, the original iPhone had no app store and no "native" model for building apps. The only way to extend the phone with new software was via the browser- a browser which explicitly offered no room for plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight.

This is the match that lit the fire under HTML5.

Suddenly browser plug-ins didn't run everywhere. Suddenly plug-ins didn't have the same allure as "pure" HTML-based apps. The iPhone, with its Webkit-based browser, required developers to re-evaluate what could be done using only the native technologies of the web to build software. It forced developers to evaluate HTML5.

Then Chrome came along and poured gasoline on the fire Apple started. With a ridiculously fast shipping cycle, near invisible (but valuable) automatic updates, and a hardcore commitment to pushing HTML5 technologies, Chrome forced browsers to once again get serious about competing on performance and support for web standards (a necessary ingredient for HTML5 to work).

Apple pushed developers to HTML5. Chrome pushed other browsers to HTML5.

The fire was lit and the conditions were right to turn this spark in to a blazing HTML5 firestorm. All that was needed now is more fuel for the fire. That fuel arrived through some unlikely bedfellows in 2011.

Friends and Foes Agree On HTML5

Here are the players: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Adobe, Amazon.

Without context, if you were to guess what all of these companies would be doing together, you'd probably guess they were involved in some kind of ugly patent lawsuit. And 9 times out of 10, you'd probably be right.

Not this time, though. In a very unusual aligning of the world's tech giants, some of the industry's fiercest competitors are all working in their own way to support and promote HTML5. Let's review:

  • Microsoft is pushing HTML5 heavily in their next version of Windows as a primary method for developing Windows software. They are also aggressively improving HTML5 support in IE10, as well as improving HTML5 dev tools and making their Azure cloud platform more "HTML5 friendly" (such as their move to support NodeJS on Azure).
  • Google is a well documented HTML5 cheerleader. Not only is a majority of their software HTML/JS-based, but they've gone so far as to build an entire operating system (Chrome OS), browser (Chrome), and app store (Chrome Web Store) around HTML5.
  • Adobe shocked the world (a bit) by getting cozy with HTML5 this year. Reminding the world that they make their money on tools, not platforms, Adobe showed it was willing to bet the Flash farm by embracing tools that help people create apps with HTML5. They even bought the popular PhoneGap tool, a product specifically designed to help developers create mobile apps with HTML5.
  • Apple is also a big HTML5 advocate (despite the value they clearly derive from "native" apps). They were part of the original committee that kicked-off HTML5's evolution. They are the creators of Webkit, easily the leading mobile HTML5 browser engine today. And their support for HTML5 on iOS helped ignite early HTML5 interest.
  • Amazon showed their support for HTML5 when they pulled popular apps from native apps stores, instead choosing to use HTML5 for their apps. They now have a vested interest in HTML5 as an app platform.

You could even toss Facebook in to the mix, especially with their recent purchase of the team behind SproutCore and rumored HTML5 app platform.

Bottom line: There is near unprecedented support across the industry for HTML5. And 2011 is the year where this support became virtually universal.

5 Major Steps for HTML5 in 2011

Finally, let's put a fine point on why 2011 (and not, let's say, 2010 or 2012) is the year of HTML5's ascendency. I think the actions of this past year make it hard to deny that 2011 will be marked as the year where HTML5 became a platform that can't be ignored.

  1. Plug-in's Stumble
    It's been a rough year for browser plug-ins, particularly Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight.

    Things got started with Microsoft's sudden change in "enthusiasm" for Silverlight, a result of the impending Windows 8 release. Silverlight rapidly evolved in its short five year life and gained many fans, but it took a confidence hit in 2011 as developers wondered how Microsoft would continue to evolve Silverlight beyond version 5. (For the record, Silverlight is still a very valuable platform for specific kinds of app development, but 2011 was nonetheless challenging for the plug-in.)

    Then Adobe dropped the other shoe with the formal announcement that they would be ending development of the Flash Mobile browser plug-in. Anybody wondering if Adobe was prepared to fight HTML5 with Flash got their answer: No. Adobe in no uncertain terms used 2011 for a "if can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategic shift.

    In both cases, HTML5 was the beneficiary. Developers sitting on the HTML5 fence got pushed over the edge with this news, and as a result thousands of new developers started seriously evaluating (and using) HTML5 to build software in 2011.

  2. Browsers Hit Warp Speed
    Chrome redefined the meaning of "rapid updates" in 2010 when they started shipping new "major" versions of Chrome every six weeks (release early, release often). They were no slowpokes before (Chrome shipped 9 "major" updates in two years before this change), but this updated schedule reinforced the pace at which Google wanted to see the app platform of the web (the browser) evolve.

    That was 2010. This year, 2011, is significant because other browsers started to join the rapid update party. In 2011 alone, the following browsers shipped:

    - Chrome 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16
    - Firefox 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9
    - Opera 11.1, 11.5, and 11.6 (Opera's point releases are similar to Chrome and Firefox "major" releases)
    - Safari 5.1
    - Internet Explorer 9, 10 (beta, which is big for Microsoft)

    That's 20 browser releases amongst the "big five" in one year! And with each release, the browsers are doing more to support HTML5. For comparison, in 2010, there were only 10 browser releases, half of which were Chrome. There is no question that 2011 is the year browsers slammed the release pedal to the metal, taking HTML5 with them.

  3. App Store Pains
    When mobile app stores emerged, there was a developer gold rush to build apps and get them in the app stores. Developers were willing to ignore and tolerate all form of painful programming and app store rule.

    Now that the dust has started to settle, though, developers are rethinking some of the implications of "native" app development, and they're starting to think more about HTML5 for mobile apps.

    With native apps, a business building mobile software must generally A) rewrite the software multiple times in different languages (if they want to reach all devices), and (by proxy) B) learn and maintain different development skill sets. In other words, native apps are inefficient if you're trying to build an app that should run "everywhere."

    Add to that the (generally) 30% tax on all native app sales and all sales made within an app, and native apps start to force businesses to look at alternatives.

    And that's just what happened in 2011.

    In 2011, Amazon made headlines for avoiding the app store tax by offering a HTML5 version of its Kindle app that delivered a near "native" experience. Amazon's move was a symbolic victory for HTML5. It proved that a major app, used by millions of users, could legitimately be built and distributed with HTML5.

    While Amazon's motives were clearly profit-driven, the impact on HTML5 was huge. The app store pains of 2011 helped "officially" legitimize HTML5 as an app platform usable for "real" software.

  4. Mobile Market Share 
    Twenty-eleven was historic for HTML5-toting, plug-in lacking smartphones. For the first time in history, more smartphones than PCs shipped every quarter of the year!

    The final quarter of 2010 was the first time smartphones beat the shipments of PCs, and that trend continued for the rest of 2011. This has major implications of the future of computing, as more people rely on smartphones and tablets for their Internet access and apps than the traditional PC or laptop.

    This shift is important to HTML5 because A) mobile devices are a great environment for HTML5 (fewer legacy browsers to deal with), B) mobile devices lack a lot of the "competing" HTML5 technologies (particularly, browser plug-ins), and C) it means there are HUGE new audiences of mobile device users that need new software built and optimized for new form factors (a great time to adopt HTML5 with a new project).

    If this trend continues in 2012 (and it likely will), then it will be 2011 that marks the official transition to a "post PC", HTML5-ready world.

  5. Maturing Tools
    It would be disingenuous to talk about major steps for HTML5 in 2011 without mentioning Kendo UI.

    As developers start flocking to HTML5 to build all varieties of software, pushed by the other influencing factors of 2011 discussed here, the need for tools that make the development process productive, fun, and maintainable is essential. HTML5 is at the cusp of transitioning from a largely enthusiast and hobby-driven technology to a full-fledge app platform, used for everything from line of business apps to corporate dashboards. Making that transition smooth requires better tools.

    Kendo UI is among the first solutions to really offer the kind of professionally built and supported tools that will help developers from all backgrounds be successful with HTML5. And 2011 is just the begging for Kendo UI. We're very excited about the opportunities and plans that lay ahead for 2012.

    But like everything else with HTML5, this year marks a significant milestone for HTML5 tools. Whether it's frameworks like Kendo UI, or improved tooling from providers like Adobe and Microsoft, another key piece of the HTML5 story came in to focus this year.

Collectively, it's hard to deny that 2011 represents anything less than the ascendancy of HTML5. As we exit 2011, we're still at the early stages of HTML5 adoption, and there is no question that HTML5 apps will become more ubiquitous in 2012 and 2013. But HTML5's success in the years that follow will be underpinned by the major steps and historical transitions that happened this year.

So hat's off to an amazing 2011, and here's to even more exciting HTML5 progress in 2012!


Burke Holland is the Director of Developer Relations at Telerik
About the Author

Burke Holland

Burke Holland is a web developer living in Nashville, TN and the Director of Developer Relations at Telerik. He enjoys working with and meeting developers who are building mobile apps with jQuery / HTML5 and loves to hack on social API's. Burke works for Telerik as a Developer Advocate focusing on Kendo UI.

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