Experimental Lex

Playing with words.

HTML5 in Digital Publishing: Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts on the use of HTML5 as a content format in digital publishing. This will be an informal journal with no real plan as to the number of posts or the topics that will be covered beyond the current post. In this first post, we will provide an intro to HTML5 and why it is relevant to digital publishing.

Explain HTML5
We should start by explaining what HTML5 is. I am sure it is not adequate to say that HTML5 is just a newer version of HTML. In general, I assume the audience here is kind of technical, but not necessarily involved in web development. So, I will start by explaining the big picture. Bear with me. This exploration is not intended to be a boring roundup of technology history. There’s a story with real meaning here.

Since the beginning of the Internet, the primary way for interacting with the Web* was through a web browser. The content that makes up a web page is assembled in a text structure called HTML and delivered to a web browser. HTML is a hierarchical text structure that resembles XML, which means that it has named elements (or “tags”) with metadata attributes that define specific page layout and formatting details. The HTML text that is rendered by a web browser will often have references to images and other media, and the browser will also fetch and display that content.

Altogether, that complex mass of tags and metadata is received by a web browser and translated for display on a computer screen for a person to view and interact with. In general, when we refer to “HTML”, we usually mean HTML4 and prior versions. With each new version of HTML, there are new features that are defined through new tags and attributes (usually with corresponding updates to CSS and Javascript). To support the new features, new web browsers are released and updated. This takes us back to “HTML5 is just a newer version of HTML”.

Just kidding. It’s much more than that.

HTML5 is Really About Mobile
With HTML5, we have a new and evolving world of Internet-connected devices that includes computers, televisions, and mobile devices. With mobile devices, especially smartphones and tablet devices, there is a driving need for alternate ways of viewing web content, due to the different content consumption habits of people when they are away from their computers and laptops. One major factor is the need for mobile devices to be able display content for users who are not currently connected to the Internet or when mobile networks are too slow.

With the iPhone and the iPad, Apple redefined mobile content consumption by creating an app-centric universe of mobile apps. Instead of depending on the web browser and an Internet connection for content, apps are capable of delivering content and entertainment when the user is away from work/home or simply relaxing. With current and future generations of mobile devices, the web browser is no longer the primary means of interacting with the Internet.

And yet, the definition of a web browser has changed or maybe lost its original meaning as a program that can display websites. However, custom apps are also capable of displaying web content, either remote websites or content stored locally. In mobile applications development, there is the notion of a “web view” component, which is like an embedded web browser that can display HTML content without looking like a web browser (with windows and tabs and menus, etc). The end-user may see it as richly-formatted content, while the source content may in fact be HTML.

Summary: Why HTML5 is Relevant
To bring this long-winded story home, I will summarize what this all means:

  • The browser is now embedded and invisible: The “webview” component in mobile apps is an HTML5-capable browser engine, but it doesn’t look like a browser. Very often, it is the WebKit rendering engine underneath, and that’s a good thing. This means you can expect consistency in the display of HTML5 content.
  • The Web is now local: Webview components are often used to display content that is stored locally on the device (and often deployed in the downloadable app). As users and devices become more mobile, the Web will be there with or without an Internet connection.
  • HTML is still a good publishing format: EBook readers like the Apple iBooks app uses the WebKit browser engine to read HTML files included inside an EPUB file. On top of that, it adds an interactive Table of Contents, bookmarks, and thumbnail navigation to make the book experience more exciting. You can do the same and create your own custom reader to deliver the experience you want.

Bottom line: HTML is no longer limited to the traditional web browser-based experience. And yet, it still supports the traditional browser-based content model.

HTML5 Features
HTML5, as a language that defines a number of features, was developed during the evolution of the Internet and towards mobile computing. Without going into the details of each feature, the overall enhancements in HTML5 can be described as follows:

  1. Portable: The portability of mobile devices also requires a web content model that is capable of operating without an Internet connection. To support this need, HTML5 provides additional features like database storage to allow HTML5 content to store and query data in a local database instead of a remote website.
  2. Media-Capable: Online video and audio in desktop web browsers almost always depends on the Adobe Flash plug-in. With mobile devices, Flash does not have the same pervasiveness due to performance constraints in mobile devices and due to legal licensing issues. One of the key goals of HTML5 is to provide built-in media players for video and audio content.
  3. Canvas Animation: Again, without the Flash plugin, there is a need to provide advanced animation capabilities. The HTML5 Canvas, with lots of help from Javascript, aims to provide this.
  4. Location-Aware: To provide location-based experiences in web content, HTML5 provides support for geolocation data for the current user location (if the user gives permission to share their geolocation info).

NEXT: Choosing a Content Format for Digital Publishing
So far, we have only started to explain the role of HTML5 in our evolving world of Internet devices. Next time, we will need to address the rationale for choosing HTML5 and what the other options are. When you consider the alternatives, you might decide that HTML5 is the best approach. Let the smackdown begin.

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