Development

HTML 5.1 Heralds Speedier Update Cycle, Superior Cross-Browser Interoperability

25 Nov 2016 12:15am, by

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recently published HTML 5.1 as a “recommendation,” which means it is now the standard replacing HTML 5.

Earlier this month the W3C’s Web Platform Working Group published HTML 5.1 as the fifth major version and first minor revision of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which is the core language of the World Wide Web.

Indeed, HTML is the standard markup language for creating web pages and web applications. It, along with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and JavaScript, represent foundational technologies for the World Wide Web.

HTML 5.1 is but an interim release of the specification; however it contains new features that simplify matters for developers and eliminates others that get in the way.

The HTML 5.1 specification is limited to providing a semantic-level markup language and associated semantic-level scripting APIs for authoring accessible pages on the web, ranging from static documents to dynamic applications, the W3C said.

“Basically, it’s an attempt to make the standard reflect the reality of what’s in browsers rather than be a Utopian ideal of what browser vendors should implement.” — Alex Danilo

“The primary goal is to provide a stable spec  that developers can use as a reference snapshot of what’s implemented in browsers,” Alex Danilo, developer advocate at Google and one of the editors of the HTML 5.1 specification for the W3C, told The New Stack.

The primary differences between HTML 5 and HTML 5.1 are documented in the change document, but from a developer’s perspective, features that had not been implemented interoperably in more than one browser have been removed, Danilo noted.

Moreover, “5.1 improves things mainly from the point of being able to reference features in the spec and expect then to work in multiple browsers which was not the case with 5.0,” he said. “Basically, it’s an attempt to make the standard reflect the reality of what’s in browsers rather than be a Utopian ideal of what browser vendors should implement.”

It took more than 10 years for the W3C to standardize HTML 5 in October of 2014, but only two years to get to HTML 5.1.

The W3C is working on more rapid release cycles and is aiming at publishing regular incremental updates and stable versions of HTML as a W3C Recommendation about once a year, said Philippe Le Hégaret, ‎Interaction Domain Leader at the W3C, in a blog post.

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In fact, work on HTML 5.2 has already begun and that specification is expected to be published by the end of next year.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, described HTML 5.1 as “an incremental release with a few additional new capabilities standardized compared to the major overhaul that HTML 5 itself was. The most important thing about this release is that it arrives at a time when browsers are being automatically updated allowing users to see new web platform innovations arrive in record time relative to prior versions.”

The move to HTML 5 from HTML 4 was indeed a “massive change,” said Charles McCathieNevile, CTO at Yandex and member of the W3C advisory board, in a blog post.

“We believe HTML 5.1 is today the best forward looking, reality-based, HTML specification ever,” Nevile said. “So our goal with HTML 5.2 is to improve on that.”

Le Hégaret noted that HTML 5.1 brings such changes over HTML 5 as:

  • The <picture> and <srcset> attributes allow responsive image selection. That means the user agent may select images between different resolutions.
  • The requestAnimationFrame API allows for more efficient animation, allowing the user agent to better determine the ideal animation rate based on whether the page is currently in a foreground or background tab, what the current load on the CPU is, and so on.
  • The <details> and <summary> elements enable authors to provide extended information that remain hidden until users choose to view the content.
  • The <menuitem> and type=”context” attribute value enable authors to add functionality to the browser’s context menu.

“It’s fair to say that HTML 5.1 is a minor update,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. “That’s not surprising given the sweeping changes introduced in the original HTLM 5 but it’s also emphasized by the W3C noting that it expects to introduce an HTML 5.2 update at the end of 2017. That said, there are some interesting additions in HTML 5.1 that are designed to keep the spec up to date.”

Among these, King cited the new < picture > and < dialog > combo tags. The former enables developers to easily incorporate responsive images that are automatically optimized for different browsers and devices, he said. The latter is a feature that was previously only supported in Chrome and Opera that enables developers to create pop-ups or dialog windows inside the HTML code with less JavaScript code than was previously required.

“Though relatively minor, these and other changes should make life easier for many developers,” King noted.

The new features primarily help make life easier for web application developers and improve interoperability.

Moreover, “As  well as fixing bugs people find in HTML 5.1, we are working to describe HTML as it really will be in late 2017,” Nevile said. “By then, Custom Elements are likely to be more than just a one-browser project and we will document how they fit in with HTML. We expect improvements in the ability to use HTML for editing content, e.g., using contenteditable, and perhaps some advances in JavaScript.”

Prior to its release in 2014, Gartner noted that HTML5 would not be a panacea for mobile application portability because the market research firm said it was fragmented and immature, and also posed many implementation and security risks.

“However, as HTML5 and its development tools mature, the popularity of the mobile web and hybrid applications will increase,” Gartner said in its report identifying HTML5 as one of their top 10 mobile technologies and capabilities for 2015 and 2016. “Hence, despite many challenges, HTML5 will be an essential technology for organizations delivering applications across multiple platforms.”

Meanwhile, the W3C is working to make the HTML specification more modular and easier to read – a goal the group has been working on for years, Nevile said.

Feature image: The HTML5test‘s timeline of HTML5 desktop browser compatibility

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