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technology review November/December 2010
One of the most illustrative applications of HTML5 is “The
Wilderness Downtown,” an interactive video that the Canadian
band Arcade Fire unveiled in September through a collabora-
tion with Google. Type in the address of a house where you grew
up, and the screen is soon given over to a video of a hooded man
running down a dark, empty street to the accompaniment of a
haunting, driving piece of music from the group’s new album,
The Suburbs. After a minute or so, the video changes, and the
man seems to be sprinting through your old neighborhood, as
depicted in satellite images and street-level pictures. The com-
bination of sound and personalized images is engrossing and
deeply affecting (the New Yorker called it “emotionally fraught”).
And although some of the elements could have been created in
a program like Flash, only HTML5 could have pulled together
data, photos, and video so smoothly from multiple sources. The
message behind the experiment: the next-generation Web will
be more open to artistry.
Everyday sites will benefit, too. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who so
detests what Flash does to the Web that he won’t make iPads and
iPhones capable of running it, praises the way that HTML5 will
enable websites to create advanced graphics and animations and
richer typography. Its elegance has already improved the document-
sharing website Scribd.com, one of the most prominent sites to
begin using those elements of HTML5 that Web browsers can
recognize today. Scribd’s founders used to fret that the site, which
used Flash to display documents, didn’t look that great. The things
people posted weren’t as readable or as easy to manipulate as they
should have been. They appeared in a frame, like “documents in
a box,” as Scribd cofounder Jared Friedman put it.
So Scribd’s engineers spent six months rebuilding the site.
They stopped using Flash to display documents, even though
that meant they had to convert tens of millions of files to HTML5.
Eventually their exhausting coding marathons paid off. After the
renewal, Scribd’s pages looked crisper because the documents had
come out of their boxes. No longer did it seem as if users had to
view the files through a lens. Readers began sticking around three
times longer, Friedman says. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Even we
were surprised how good the metrics looked.”
Scribd’s renovation also made the site usable in the browser
of an iPad, where it has the smoothness and light feel of an app.
To turn a page, you can simply swipe a slider bar at the bottom
of a document. This reflects what might ultimately be HTML5’s
most important benefit: the way it can make the Web useful on
Some of the credit for that achievement goes to Apple, which
has, somewhat counterintuitively, become one of the biggest play-
ers on the Web, despite the fact that it has driven the app revolu-
tion and holds only a slim share of the browser market.
When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it dramatically
altered the expectations the public had for the mobile Web. Until
then, most smart phones offered only a substandard version of
the Web as it appeared on PCs. Apple, however, opted to use
the same system that underpinned its desktop Safari browser:
WebKit, its open-source browser engine, the software compo-
nent that translates the code of a Web page into what appears
on the screen. In 2008, Google adopted WebKit as the basis of
its Chrome browser, bringing it to desktops and Android phones.
A string of phone makers followed: Nokia, Palm, Samsung, and
the maker of the BlackBerry, Research in Motion, have incor-
porated WebKit browsers into their handsets. Today, WebKit is
the dominant engine for mobile Web browsing—and because
WebKit easily supports HTML5, Web developers can easily use
it to create mobile versions of their sites that work well and look
good on multiple devices.
HTML5 can’t fix the Web overnight. There’s still a long way to
go. For example, while the browser makers are in agreement on
most things, they continue to argue about which video standards
File sharing (P2P)
Internet video to TV
Internet Video to PC
Global Consumer Internet Traffic (2006–’14)
Note: 1 Petabyte = roughly 1,000,000 Gigabytes. Source: Cisco Visual Networking Index.
Percentage of new HTML5 features supported
by major browsers
(2011 or later)
WORK IN PROGRESS
Microsoft’s internet explorer trails rival browsers
in its ability to handle htML5.
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