A Paintbrush for a Carpenter

Since the only way forward – at the moment – for web productions seems to be HTML, I think it is time to put this little piece of technique into the spotlight, and give it a good roast.

Don’t get me wrong, HTML and I have discovered new areas now for almost 20 years and through those years I have built web productions from social ‘planet’ complete with avatars and chat possibilities in 1994, Disney productions and real estate productions in 1995-1996 to government and corporate websites from 1997 and later. And HTML always was more or less the box of Lego I had to play with to make it all work. I love HTML, it is an easy thing to learn, even to master, but it is getting time to have it retire.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t believe that HTML5 will be the answer to future developments and requirements of what we need to do.

In 1999, when a bunch of friends and I founded our company we were pretty unique. Because our believe was that websites should not have run in as a browser-based website, but as a downloadable application (hmmmm…. app anyone?) that would run from your local machine but with content from the web. We did this for a huge Dutch real-estate corporation where we built ancient Greece from which you would explore the company, its products and information in an ancient reflection to reality. It was fun, but alas, we had more know-how of creating the stuff than running the company and this production never saw the light of day.

But even then, and that is now 13 years ago, it was clear that HTML could not do what we wanted it to do. The platform was too limited, too unstable. And that was already with HTML4, the version that is still considered the current, latest version (keep in mind, HTML5 does not officially exist yet, nor is the expectation that the standard will be defined anytime soon).

I have since then built I think hundreds of sites using good old play HTML, usually in connection with SQL, ASP, ASP.NET, or PHP and JSP. It is something I feel comfortable with… it is almost self explanatory, and anyone who takes an hour to concentrate of what is going on, will be able to master it in a couple of days.

HTML is not about programming, HTML is about thinking and putting structure to your front-end. Adding extra functionalities with JavaScript, server-side scripting or external media make it a lot more interesting.

And with HTML you can build page after page, huge sites, partially dynamic, and do some quite amazing stuff. But HTML has three major flaws in my experience:

1. HTML is not a closed environment.

I don’t mean it is a closed environment based on its user license, but that it is open to anyone to look into. The source is free to analyze, and all the traffic is easily caught and examined.

2. HTML has no timeline.

For anything that has slightly to do with any form of animation, a timeline is essential. Every graphic, design and animation and video standard tool has been using this for eons. You need a timeline to time your events, place keyframes and distortion filters. That is what makes a production able to do anything with multi-media.

3. HTML seems to be no standard.

Excuse me? I hear you gasp. How dare I say this! Simple. In my opinion, a standard is only a standard when everyone handles it exactly as they should. And even though these days it is better than it ever was, still, one browser might show the same HTML differently than another. As soon as that happens, I am sorry, that means the standard is pretty much useless. Sure, you can build things that almost look the same on different browsers, but often, you need exacts instead of ‘close enough’. Because a lot of clients don’t deal with ‘close enough’.

And then there is this bunch of additions that proof my point. Because, let’s be reasonable, if HTML was good on its own, why does it need so many additions to make it get somewhere close to a media experience?

DHTML for example introduced us with more dynamic elements in HTML itself. It also introduced the very popular and personal-favorite tag ‘DIV’.

JavaScript (and other scripts for that matter). With JavaScript we are able to build all kinds of functionalities, dynamic behavior. And without it, we would never had AJAX, which allows us to create dynamic and timed connections to any kind of data source whenever we want.

Server-Side Scripting allows you to prepare the HTML your browser will receive with custom funcitonalities and code and data.

CSS – Stylesheets. Almost unimaginable to work without them with HTML. But again, it is introduced because the style management in HTML itself was more or less non-existing.

I mean, even these three, which are the bare essentials you need to build a dynamic website, shows that HTML is not able to do it all by itself. It is like buying a car, but you need to have a steering wheel, engine block and tires before you can do anything with it, except looking pretty.

Adobe, afraid that everyone might leave their multi-media development platform Flash, has been working hard on creating a Flash to HTML5 compiler, but recently stated that HTML5 is not going to have such a performance and fluidity as Flash had.

So, what I am trying to point out is that the basis of HTML is seriously flawed for development these days. And to add functionality and flexibility to it, you have to add different codes and techniques to it to make it work.

And HTML5 is not taking care of most of these issues. Worse, JavaScript implementation is becoming more entwined with native HTML5 elements like Canvas, which should be there as an answer to more media oriented working with media and animation. But now, instead of just building it by designers, it has to be developed. That is not a solution, that is giving a paintbrush to a carpenter.

Sure, Flash, for example, is seriously limited in a lot of flexibility if someone does not explore ActionScript (Which is an ECMAscript language like JavaScript it), but without any knowledge, a designer could build incredible things… which with HTML5, well, not.

Maybe it is time for a new way of browsing the web altogether.


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