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HTML5 Update: W3C Says Not Yet Viable, Privacy Concerns Raised

6 minute read
J. Angelo Racoma avatar

The video, drag-n-drop, canvas and other features promised by HTML5 have drawn much attention, but it's not yet appropriate to build websites against the emerging standard, W3C official cautions. Separately, privacy experts point to open concerns.

Since the early days of HTML, the markup language has been evolving tosupport richer content and media. To some extent Web content has become ahodgepodge of different standards that attempt to marry text withmultimedia. Now that the Web is at the brink of adopting a new standardthat promises to support rich content natively without external plug-insor applications, standards officials warn that the new version of HTMLis not yet ready.

Richer Content, Minus the Overhead

The World Wide Web Consortium, or theW3C—the international body that adopts Web standards—has been developingHTML5 since 2004 as a successor to the current HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.1standards, upon the initial work of the Web Hypertext ApplicationTechnology Working Group (see our HTML5 primer here).

Among the salient features of HTML5 are native support for rich contentlike video, and UI advancements like drag-and-drop. These arefunctionalities currently addressed by a mixture of third-party browser plug-ins, suchas Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, and JavaScript libraries like jQuery.

Much excitement has been generated over HTML5, particularly from withinthe web development community. For example, Apple’s Steve Jobs has toutedHTML 5 as aviable replacement for Flash,highlighting Apple’s preference for open standards rather than closedones.

In particular, Jobs highlighted the disadvantage of Flash when itcomes to mobile devices. By adding an additional software layer fordecoding, Flash will easily eat up processing power and battery, whereasa hardware-decoded approach like H.264 should improve performance andpower efficiency.Industry giants Google and Microsoft are also rooting for HTML5 as afully-integrated approach to a richer Web experience. Microsoft will befully implementing HTML5 in itsupcoming Internet Explorer 9. Google, meanwhile, has been deploying certain HTML5-standards in its Gmail and other Google Apps products, on a browser-specific basis.

Interoperability Issues

However, this doesn’t come without a caveat. In an interview with Infoworld,W3C’s interaction domain leader, Philippe Le Hegaret, has warnedagainst getting too excited about the current state of HTML5.

Le Hegaret believes that HTML5 isnot ready for production yet, noting that the W3C still needs to makechanges on APIs. According to Le Hegaret

"The problem we're facing right now is there is already a lot ofexcitement for HTML5, but it's a little too early to deploy it becausewe're running into interoperability issues, including differencesbetween video on devices."

He adds that the problemlies with whether HTML5 can work across browsers. "[A]t the moment, thatis not the case."Le Hegaret acknowledges that companies are already implementing portionsof the HTML 5 spec in their various applications. However, these aremostly in cases where the environment can be controlled, such asbrowser-specific content. It’s a different story when it comes to the"open web" though.

Privacy Concerns Heating-up

Lately, a number of privacy concerns have surfaced in the HTML5 context. Recent commentary by Tanzina Vega, a New York Times technology reporter, shone light on the issue. Of particular concern was the complexity related to removing HTML5 persistent data (similar to existing HTML cookies) from your computer, after visiting a website that utilizes this mechanism for storing information about you, your preferences or your activities.

Learning Opportunities

HTML5 certainly takes persistent data storage to a new level, but as Jim Rapoza points out, this is not necessarily a new concern. Rapoza rightly states that there are already complexities related to cleaning out long-term web data storage. In fact, most web surfers probably have little idea how to thoroughly accomplish today, with existing web technologies.

Yet the privacy concerns go beyond HTML5's facilitation of long term data storage. As it sits today, the new standard also includes geo-location functionality (see demo here). In a related report by University of California at Berkley researchers Nick Doty, Deirdre K. Mulligan and Erik Wilde the group stated:

"The W3C’s Geolocation API may rapidly standardize the transmission of location information on the Web, but, in dealing with such sensitive information, it also raises serious privacy concerns."

The UC Berkley report relays survey findings which indicate that "location information
has been identified as the most sensitive element of information shared within social networks." The IETF additionally has a working group called GEOPRIV who's mission is to establish acceptable means of working with geo-location data. Among other things, the group's charter states:

"The GEOPRIV working group is chartered to continue to develop and
refine representations of location in Internet protocols, and to
analyze the authorization, integrity, and privacy requirements that
must be met when these representations of location are created,
stored, and used."

It seems the geo-location privacy conversation will remain an energetic space, which may affect the ultimate form and shape of the HTML5 spec.

Time-frame for HTML5’s Open Adoption

The W3C official saysit will take years before HTML5 will finally beadopted. "We basicallywant to be feature-complete by mid-2011," LeHegaret says. After thisstage, the next steps will be a call forcomments, a candidaterecommendation stage, and then finally, therecommendation stage.

TheHTML5 spec is expected to see final approval within two to three years. Until then, there is still much work that needs to be done. Le Hegaret acknowledges that HTML5 is still lacking in a lot of things. For example, the standard does not come with a video codec, and the W3C isnot likely going to include one in the upcoming spec, possibly due topatent issues. Likewise, digital rights management is something that willbe difficult to implement in an open standard.

Not (Yet) a Flash Killer

As it is, HTML 5 is already seeing an incredible amount of momentum,particularly when it comes to how big names like Google, Apple andMicrosoft are adopting it. However, developers and usersshould not expect to see the demise of technologies like Flash anytimesoon, although Le Hegaret adds that “[y]ou will see less and lesswebsites using Flash” as HTML5 becomes the standard for websitedevelopment.