HTML 5: Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe Fight to Rule the Web

Last Updated Mar 31, 2010 11:36 AM EDT

Yesterday, I covered HTML 5 and how it will change the web. Many companies -- such as Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL), and Adobe (ADBE) â€" have strong financial interests in HTML 5's final form and when it eventually takes its place on the web. Other organizations and businesses have different interests, and they'll all throw elbows in a race to control what happens.

As I mentioned in the previous post, HTML 5 is supposed to be the next version of the web language standard. It promises to do everything that Flash does, from delivering video and enabling slick user interfaces to providing a platform to develop small downloadable applications, without the need to download and install a browser plug-in. But exactly how HTML 5 works, and how well sites adopt it, is a contentious issue. Here's a rundown of the major players in the coming tousle and what drives them:
  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the official standards body for the web. People behind the web want technology independent from any given company. For a long time, Adobe Flash has been an integral tool for many sites to deliver video, create navigational interfaces, and to develop animation and applications. Microsoft Silverlight is a competitor to Flash that provides similar services. HTML 5 is supposed to largely supersede the need for additional programs and browser plug-ins. But progress has been relatively slow, at least by hyper-impatient Internet standards.
  • The Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) is an body started by three browser vendors: Apple (Safari), the Mozilla Foundation (Firefox), and Opera Software (Opera). Since its start, the group now has a representative from Google, which makes Chrome. WHATWG members don't like the direction that the (W3C) has taken for HTML 5. WHATWG wants its own approach to win out, and its members all have something to gain from getting their way.
  • Apple is a control freak that wants to lock in all aspects of any industry in which the company plays. Aside from some legitimate performance issues, Apple and CEO Steve Jobs don't want to be beholding to another company, no matter what the long relationship history between them. Under HTML 5, Apple can push to do things its way, sell the technology (think QuickTime) to encode and run video on web sites, and extend its grasp on downloaded media sales.
  • No matter what Adobe says, it doesn't like HTML 5 because the standard threatens a portion of the company's revenue. In its fiscal year 2009, Adobe's platform division, which includes client and developer products for Flash and Adobe Air, represented about 6.1 percent of the company's revenue according to the 10-K. However, people use other Adobe tools from the much larger creative solutions segment to do Flash work, so there's a potential secondary danger.
  • All Google wants to do is run ads. YouTube is one of its future star venues and a huge player in the video standard wars because it currently delivers video using Flash. Google has no undying allegiance to Adobe; YouTube already has an experimental HTML 5 video player that will run "most" material on the site. However, it currently only works with Safari, Chrome, or Internet Explorer with Chrome Frame. Because it doesn't have general support for IE or for Firefox, don't expect a sudden move away from Adobe. Furthermore, even if people spotted Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt recently having coffee, lots of bad feelings between the two competitors remain, and Google doesn't want Apple with too strong a hand. That helps explain why Google will build Flash into its Chrome browser.
  • Microsoft wants to beat both Apple and Google. That could make from some strange bedfellows, because Microsoft Silverlight already competes with Adobe Flash. And yet, Microsoft has been improving its degree of HTML 5 support in Internet Explorer, particularly in the new preview edition of IE 9. Even in covering all bases, the chances of Microsoft coming out on top are slim. However, it could make adoption difficult through its current approach of only partially implementing HTML 5 support in IE, which is still the mostly widely used browser in the world.
Those are the big players. There are smaller ones, as well. For example, online video system vendor Brightcove announced a publishing platform for HTML 5-based video that the company claims will work on an iPad and, apparently, convert Flash video to HTML 5. Sorenson Media has been around for years -- it licensed the first codec (compression and decompression software that web video needs to run) to Apple for QuickTime. Up until a year-and-a-half ago, Sorenson also provided the codec that YouTube used. As a matter of fact, as mobile vendors gear up from video on the go, Sorenson has seen a strong rebound for some of its legacy software because companies want to be compatible with all the clips on YouTube. All sorts of companies have a vested interest in the rapid adoption -- or not -- of HTML 5.

Make no mistake: HTML will eventually be in place and the need for Adobe Flash and similar products will fall away. But to get there, the HTML 5 specifications must become final, and that's a long time off. As Mark Pilgrim of Google recently wrote on the WHATWG blog regarding progress:
So when can I use all this stuff? Hahahahahaha. You must be new here.
Image: RGBStock.com user zatrokz, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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