The browser has become the single piece of software most widely deployed and used. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Firefox's Mozilla are in a race to develop more functional browsers. The core functionality of these browsers must be the same to comply with W3C standards, but they compete on the implementation, such as making use of hardware acceleration.
The race is on to implement HTML 5.0, which moves web browsing beyond simply providing a means of accessing web pages, to supporting web applications. In a report published last September, Gartner research director, Kirk Knoernschild, said: "HTML 5 will allow developers to create web applications that rival rich and fit client offerings."
In the past developers needed to use rich internet plug-ins such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight, to make interactive browser-based applications. The emergence of Ajax allowed web designers to move away from requiring users to download a plug-in but, according to Kirk Knoernschild, Ajax had limitations which prevented web developers from offering full user interactivity through web browsers. This is set to change with HTML 5.0, which offers a programmer-friendly application programming interface, drag and drop, web storage, multimedia support, offline pages and the ability for HTML pages to communicate with each other.
A standard for HTML 5.0 is years off, but browsers are supporting some of the proposed features. Paul Cotton manages a team at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, looking at web-services protocols. Cotton is also co-chair of the HTML working group at the Worldwide Web Consortium, (W3C). He says his work on the W3C committee is mainly one of governance, to ensure implementations of HTML are compatible.
Compatibility is a key requirement for browser developers. Web developers design sites to render accurately on multiple browsers - they may spend a lot of time and effort running compatibility tests across different browsers - and even different versions of the same browser - to ensure the website displays and functions correctly. The challenge for W3C is to ensure a website behaves similarly across different web browsers. The W3C looks at the five main browsers, namely Apple Safari, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera. With HTML 5.0, the W3C aims to tackle browser incompatibility by running stringent tests browsers need to pass.
This month, Cotton expects the HTML 5 standard to reach the next stage of development, when the specification becomes feature-complete.
One component of the spec, CSS 2.1 (cascading style sheets), has reached the proposal recommendation status in the W3C process. Cotton says: "CSS 2.1 gives you a crystal ball into HTML 5.0. It describes how to style and format a web page." Unlike its predecessor, CSS 2, which used the Acid 3 browser test and comprised about 100 tests, Cotton says CSS 2.1 requires a browser to test against 9,000 tests. He says Microsoft has submitted 5,000 tests to the new test suite for CSS 2.1. To pass, each test needs to be run against two browsers, and produce identical results for both. Cotton says: "CSS 2.1 is a really significant step for all browsers." All browser should achieve a high score in the tests, to ensure users get the same experience when they visit websites.
Some browsers today already support the W3C proposals, but Cotton says Internet Explorer will not include any, unless they are stable. For instance, Microsoft does not think the IndexDB specification is stable enough for IE. "If we put it in, it may break applications. The most important criteria for Microsoft is stability."
Compatibility will become increasingly important as HTML becomes richer. Rather than simply describe content and layout on a web page, HTML 5.0 is becoming more like a graphical user interface. "I believe HTML 5.0 will be rich enough to sit on top of the core operating system," says Cotton.
So in the future it may be possible to use HTML 5.0 to create client-side applications that offer as rich a user interface as the GUI that sits on top of Windows or MacOS.
CIOs can turn to the mobile space to see how the web browser and applications (or apps) are being consumed by users. Mobile-browsing technologies will improve significantly, says Thomas Husson, principal analyst at Forrester, in a recent blog post: "HTML5 will greatly improve the audio and video capabilities of mobile browsers. Improved browsing technologies will force apps to evolve."
It may be years off but CIOs will need to start planning for HTML 5.0 now. One of the main issues they will need to address is migrating off older browsers, especially IE6. The idea of a desktop client will also change. Rather than develop for Windows or another platform, companies could develop in HTML 5.0, and offer the application on any platform with an HTML 5.0 browser. Operating systems such as Windows will still be needed to support the underlying functionality required by the HTML 5.0 browser, but it is entirely possible for the look and feel of a client-side application to be controlled through the browser.