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Apple drops HTML from iPhone and iPad

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April Fools Apple will drop support for HTML in the upcoming version of its iPhone OS, slated for release this summer.

According to people familiar with the matter, the removal of HTML support from Cupertino's mobile Safari browser is outlined in the Developer Program License Agreement for the upcoming iPhone OS 4.0, to be used not only in the iPhone but also in the surprisingly popular iPod touch and the "magical and revolutionary" iPad, set for US release this Saturday.

Apple's License Agreement states that mobile Safari will only render pages coded in its own HTML variant - dubbed iHTML - and that all such pages must be first approved by Cupertino's App Store police before they will be allowed onto the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

"Apple is again changing the way people interact with their devices and with the web," said longtime Apple-watcher Bob Wenderle.

Wenderle calls the removal of HTML support a "master stroke" and suggested that Apple's decision to supplant HTML with its own variant merely continues Apple's "long-standing practice of going its own way, leapfrogging traditional solutions and supplanting them with its own groundbreaking vision of improved interactive experiences."

A recent Netcraft survey reported that worldwide web hostnames peaked at 240 million in January 2010, but has since sunk to just over 200 million, prompting speculation that Apple has been working behind the scenes to begin the transformation of web properties from HTML to iHTML.

The License Agreement, according to people familiar with the matter, indicates that iHTML and HTML are substantially similar - the HTML5 <video> tag, for example, is supported - but the rendering engine is set to detect a metatag identification string that indicates whether the page has been approved by Apple.

In iHTML, such archaic tags as <marquee> and <blink> have been removed, but little else is mentioned in the License Agreement, according to people familiar with the matter. For more details, The Reg will have to wait until the iPhone 4.0 SDK is released, most likely in Q3 of this year.

Apple has received a fair amount of criticism for its arguably puritanical attitude to applications it allows into its iTunes App Store. Many observers have pointed out - and rightly so - that although the App Store police ban "overtly sexual content" from applications, such content is readily available on the web through the mobile Safari browser. Apple's iHTML effort may be seen as an end-run around such criticism.

While iHTML may solve the problem of objectionable content, it creates another one - one that may or may not be of concern to the Cupertinian brain trust: In a 2008 blog post, Google engineers Jesse Alpert and Nissan Hajaj estimated that the total number of web pages was in the range of one trillion. After the iHTML transition, only those pages that have been translated into iHTML and approved by Apple will be viewable on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

One analyst who declined to be identified told The Reg that Apple's switch to iHTML makes good business sense. "If, for example, Apple would require a license fee of a mere ten cents for each page converted into iHTML, Google's estimate of one trillion pages would constitute a potential $100bn income opportunity for Apple."

A spokeswoman for mobile ad broker Greystripe also sees a business upside for iHTML. Noting that her company had only yesterday announced its iFlash transcoder, which converts Flash-based creative into a form that can be displayed on Flash-less iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches, she told The Reg: "Greystripe sees a parallel opportunity in transcoding HTML into iHTML. We're already working on such technology, to be called iiHTML."

Norwegian browser developer Opera, who late last month submitted their Opera Mini app to the App Store, also sees an opportunity. Their spokesman told us: "Since Opera Mini doesn't render HTML on the mobile device, but instead relies on proxy servers to perform the rendering, which is then passed down to the device, we see no conflict with Apple's proposed iHTML standard."

The impact of Apple's iHTML effort is hard to forecast. With hundreds of millions of hostnames serving over a trillion web pages, the number of developers who will make the effort to convert their web offerings into iHTML to allow them to be viewed on Apple's industry-leading devices will be a telling measure of Apple's clout in the mobile market.

The Reg suggests that a good date to judge the success of the iHTML effort would be exactly one year from today: April 1, 2011. ®

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