If it's not obvious that HTML 5 is a big deal, consider that this was the very first major topic discussed at Google I/O this year. Google vice president of product management Sundar Pichai stepped through a discussion about web momentum. This should be fairly obvious, but he used this as a positioning statement with regards to Google's more traditional software competitors (i.e. Microsoft), who are still focusing largely on desktop applications instead of web services. Since 2004, he said, you can't find any popular desktop applications, aside from games and web browsers that are used by millions of users. (I suspect those who use such things as Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, iTunes, and many others would disagree, but I think what he meant to say was "new desktop applications," or those applications that were invented since 2004.)
2004 is the year that AJAX and Web 2.0 revolution happened, enabling what is still in many ways the current generation of web applications. These web-based applications include such things as Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Flickr, Google Maps, Hulu, and many others. And with this new capability, the web itself changed, from a repository for documents to a platform for applications.
As you probably know, web applications have not historically been as powerful as traditional desktop PC applications, though the gap between them is shrinking over time. PC applications benefit from tight integration with the underlying PC capabilities--local multimedia, graphics, storage, and so on--as well as hardware devices like microphones, speakers, cameras, and the like. And in case it's not obvious, the glue that binds all this together on a PC is the OS, Windows. For the web, and thus Google, to really take over, this annoying and ultimately unnecessary piece needs to be removed from the puzzle and, ideally, replaced by something light and small, and of course of Google's own creation.
HTML is an early step to this Google-focused future, according to Pichai, because it provides web apps with access to the underlying capabilities of the devices that are being used to access the Internet.
"Most computers today ship with powerful GPUs," Pichai said as an example. "How do you make sure that web applications can access these graphics capabilities? That's what WebGL and the graphics APIs are all about. Worker (thread) is all about allowing web applications to access the multi-core CPUs present on the computers. There are APIs to access the local file system, local storage, speaker, microphone, camera, and the list goes on. All this matters only if the browsers support these APIs." And, I suppose, finally live up to Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen's 15-year-old goal of reducing Windows to a "poorly debugged set of device drivers."
Pichai noted that efforts to integrate HTML functionality into browsers has advanced a lot in the past two years, thanks to pioneering work by Apple (Safari), Opera, and Mozilla (Firefox) and, eventually, by Google in Chrome. By the end of 2010, Pichai expects Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari to support all of the major HTML 5 APIs--Video, Canvas, SVG, WebGL, Appcache, Geolocation, Workers, Web Sockets, and Web Storage--while Microsoft will support a subset--Video, SVG, and Web Storage--in IE 9. The laughter at this last pit suggested that Pichai's poke at Microsoft's current browser efforts was effective.
Mobile is a huge consideration as well. Today's smart phones all have capable web browsers of some kind, and the number of HTML 5-enabled mobile browsers is rising rapidly over time, and outpacing non-HTML 5 browsers, according to Pichai. (The data comes from mobile Google searches, which could be somewhat skewed.)
Google is starting to integrate various HTML 5 capabilities into its own solutions, and a demo of Gmail's drag-and-drop attachments and notifications features demonstrates the blurring of the line between what has historically been desktop application functionality and what is now possible on the web.
In keeping with the nature of tech industry keynote addresses, third parties were carted up on stage to show off HTML 5 capabilities in their own products and services. There were a number of smaller players, but I find it telling that Google carted out current Apple target Adobe so it could discuss what it's doing to promote HTML 5, a technology that is ostensibly a competitor to its own Flash products. In fact, Adobe is incorporating HTML support into a number of its products. Adobe's Dreamweaver web development tool is being updated to provide multiscreen preview, so you can simultaneously view your web sites across three different devices--phone, tablet, PC--at once.
More important, perhaps, Adobe hinted about its future direction in previewing tools that would generate both HTML 5 and Flash code, providing developers with a way to accomplish advanced effects now with Flash with an eye towards transitioning to HTML 5 as those capabilities advance.