Marketing departments abscond with 'HTML5'

Sorry, Web developers, the promotional experts have made off with another one of your terms. Even if Apple is riding roughshod over you, though, maybe it's for the best.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read

Apple's launch of Safari 5 made it final: the marketing people have snatched the term "HTML5" away from the developers.

HTML5 is the next version of the Hypertext Markup Language standard for creating Web pages. The standard has lain fallow for a decade, but passionate, persistent developers resuscitated it with new features ranging from built-in video to 2D graphics.

But there's a reason a minority of the population knows how to program: it's complicated. So it's no surprise that when it comes time to pitch a product, the marketing folks step in with the tasteful packaging to make it all comprehensible.

Apple blocked other browsers from its HTML5 demo site.
Apple blocked other browsers from its HTML5 demo site. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In Apple's case, it was an HTML5 demo page. There have been plenty of such pages before, and there will be plenty more to come, but few in the tech world are up to the caliber of Apple's marketing staff. Apple's HTML5 demos offer swirling iPods, tasteful typographic technology, elaborately transforming photos, and other eye candy.

Hackles raised
Apple lending its marketing might sounds like a dream come true for developers who'd spent years struggling to make the case for HTML5, right? Umm, not so much.

Apple's programmers with the WebKit browser engine project that underlies Safari have been among the HTML5 allies, but Apple's marketing staff evidently are less collegial. Apple's site blocked other browsers, with the following message:

You'll need to download Safari to view this demo.

This demo was designed with the latest Web standards supported by Safari. If you'd like to experience this demo, simply download Safari. It's free for Mac and PC, and it only takes a few minutes.

It doesn't quite say that other browsers don't support HTML5, but it most definitely is a marketing pitch for Safari.

It should come as no surprise to see Apple touting its products, but the way it did so raised hackles.

"Apple's messaging is clearly meant to say, "Hey, we love the Web," but the actual demos they have and the fact that [they] actively block other browsers from those demos don't match their messaging. It's not intellectually honest at all," complained Mozilla evangelist Christopher Blizzard in a blog post. "It's unfortunate, and I guess inevitable, that browsers would compete on how much HTML5 they are bathed in."

Bruce Lawson, who has long touted HTML5 at Opera, was better-humored if not any happier, calling Apple's site "hilariously disingenuous." Adds an Opera colleague Haarvard Moen, "When the page doesn't work in Opera or other browsers it isn't because these browsers don't support HTML5."

Those who agree with the critics might put themselves in Apple's shoes for a moment, though.

Sure, the site is for promoting Safari. But beyond that, it's also meant to show off various browser features, not to check how well one browser or another supports them. It's a demonstration for the mainstream, non-tech-savvy audience Apple aspires to shield from technical complexity. The last thing Apple wants is for the demo to look bad or broken on some noncompliant browser, and blocking others besides Safari accomplishes that. The more of the technology a company controls, the easier it is to keep the bugs at bay, a lesson Apple knows well from Macs and iPhones.

Apple touted HTML5--or at least the collection of Web technologies the term has come to stand for--but only with Safari.
Apple touted HTML5--or at least the collection of Web technologies the term has come to stand for--but only with Safari. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

There are nits to pick with Apple's site, of course. The words "You'll need to download Safari to view this demo" falsely implies other browsers wouldn't be able to handle the demos, not that Apple was simply not letting them in. I had no trouble with the demos using Chrome, for example, though it shares some of Safari's WebKit lineage.

For those who want to try out the demos without Safari, a developer version of Apple's HTML5 demo site has somewhat lower barriers to entry. So Apple didn't completely try to sweep the true complexity of Web sites and Web browsers under the rug.

What exactly is 'HTML5'?
The Apple demos embody a second indication that the marketers have seized the HTML5 label, though: Strictly speaking, many of the demonstrations aren't actually of HTML5.

Web developers have been debating what "HTML5" actually means for months: Is it just a single specification, or does it include other technologies, often related and certainly being used at the same time on advanced Web sites?

Here are some Web changes that aren't part of HTML5, technically, that often are lumped in by those using the term broadly:

Geolocation, which lets the browser tell a Web site your physical location, is part of HTML but not HTML5. There is faster JavaScript. There is the Scalable Vector Graphics standard, years old but newly relevant with Microsoft IE9's forthcoming support. And perhaps most relevant, there is the Cascading Style Sheets standard, which features prominently in many of the Apple demonstrations.

And then there are the Web technologies that don't have universal buy-in. There's IndexedDB to let Web applications store data locally on a computer--but Apple backed a different horse for that concept. There's WebGL, for 3D graphics on the Web, but Microsoft has yet to express anything like enthusiasm for it. And perhaps the best-known example is the actual encoding technology used within HTML5 video: Apple and Microsoft prefer H.264, while Google, Opera, and Mozilla prefer the new WebM from Google. Should these fit into the HTML5 catch-all term?

Remember also that some of the competition can be summed up in five other alphanumeric characters already: Flash. Adobe Systems' plug-in may be loved by some Web developers and loathed by others, but it's unquestionably a model for a lot of what is happening with Web standards. HTML5 fans, if they get riled up by this snarky "jump back in time with HTML5" site showing how many years earlier the Apple HTML5 demos could have been shown with Flash, might want a convenient "HTML5" banner to rally around.

For programmers, precision is useful, and "HTML5" is becoming steadily more imprecise. But when trying to impress the world with a paradigm-shiftingly awesome change, being bold, grand, and sweeping can be more effective even if some bits end up in the wrong buckets. HTML5 is a lot more convenient a placeholder term than HTML and a litany of alphabet soup, and it's clear that right now, the world craves a convenient placeholder.

We've seen this before. Ajax, for example, outgrew its narrower roots to stand for Web sites with fancy user interfaces. But sometimes it's OK to let the marketing people appropriate a term. If you were a Web developer, which would you rather have: the precision of standards language, or momentum that unites programmers, browser makers, and ordinary people in support of new standards?