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HTML 5 is no Flash or Silverlight killer — yet

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Even Google, probably the loudest and largest HTML 5 advocate in the room, understands that without widespread developer support, Canvas and other HTML 5 tools will never make inroads against the plug-ins they're designed to replace.

Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra recently exhorted developers gathered at the company's I/O Conference to use the new tools, saying, "having the underlying capability in the browser is not enough." According to Gundotra: "It's up to [developers] and companies like Google to build compelling apps that build on these capabilities."

But that's exactly where the problem of browser support rears its ugly head again. From the developer standpoint, HTML 5 faces a chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum. There's currently a dearth of developer tools for working with the animation frameworks that HTML 5 offers, but at least part of the reason there's no developer tools is that the Canvas element isn't widely supported.

Adobe blogger John Dowdell recently addressed some of the hype around HTML 5, writing, that while HTML 5's potential looks promising, "de facto capability determines what you can actually do for real audiences."

In other words, while Adobe recognizes that there's a threat to Flash lurking in HTML 5, it isn't a very big threat in today's web world. How long that will remain true is of course the real question.

If Google has anything to say about it, the answer will be not long. The company is already building with HTML 5's toolset - the new Gmail application for the iPhone uses the HTML 5 local-storage mechanism for offline mail access.

But even when Google relies on HTML 5, the company still sometimes falls back on other tools. For example, Google Wave, the company's attempt to replace e-mail with something new, makes heavy use of HTML 5, but Wave also requires the Gears plug-in for some of its functionality.

Even assuming - and this is a big assumption - that things go HTML 5's way with new browsers supporting it and developers using it, its Flash-killer days are still somewhat distant. HTML 5 still has to contend with the perpetual elephant in the room - legacy browsers.

It seems a forgone conclusion at this point that in the next few years HTML 5 will eventually be adopted and supported by all the major browsers, but what about today's browsers?

The Microsoft factor

Google, the Mozilla Foundation and Apple all aggressively push software updates to their users, but Microsoft doesn't. If the transition from Internet Explorer 6 to IE 7 to IE 8 is any indication, it's going to be quite some time before using HTML 5 tools is a practical idea for major websites.

Forget IE 6, forget IE 7, IE 8 doesn't support very much of HTML 5, which means before deploying HTML 5 becomes practical IE 8 needs to expire. It's been nearly nine years since the release of IE 6 and it still manages to hold between 15 and 20 per cent of the market - depending on what set of stats you want to believe.

Even being charitable and assuming IE 8's successor fully implements HTML 5 and enjoys double the adoption rate of its predecessors, it's going to be at least five years before the majority of users have a browser capable of rendering HTML 5 in all its glory.

In the mean time expect Flash and increasingly Silverlight to to be a necessary part of the web ecosystem.

Will HTML 5 one day make Flash, Silverlight and other plug-in technologies obsolete? Most likely, but unfortunately that day is still quite a way off. ®

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