What is HTML 5 and Does It Matter to You?

The building blocks of code that tell your web browser how a web site looks are changing once again. Learn what you can expect from the latest specification and when you will benefit.


There are two main versions of HTML in use today: HTML 4 and XHTML 1. In reality the two are nearly identical. Both are about 10 years old. XHTML is the strict parent that requires you to put everything away in specific order. HTML is your grandparents who forget quickly.

We choose to use XHTML every day for two reasons. First, we find those strict conventions to be helpful in making the code more readable. Second, when something isn’t right, it is easier to track down the problem.

In the future though, we are going to have to change. The XHTML 2 working group recently announced they have disbanded and are backing HTML 5. Don’t worry — unification is a great thing and we applaud the decision to do so.

XHTML is dead. Long Live XHTML.

One of the big reasons I believe the XHTML 2 working group disbanded was because the HTML 5 group has essentially adopted their style as an option. Using HTML 5 you can still retain that strict parent approach that makes it easier for designers and developers in the long run.


The biggest changes to HTML 5 are with respect to semantics. As designers, there are common ways we create pages for every web site. Headers, navigation, sidebars, footers and content areas. We always name them the same as it makes it easy for us to step into each other’s work.

The HTML 5 specification addresses these commonalities head on by creating new tags that are what they say. The new tags include:

  • header
  • nav
  • aside
  • footer
  • article
  • section

Not only will it make it easier for us as designers, it will make it easier for the search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing). It takes some of the guesswork away in determining what links and content are most important on a page. You can now say “Yes, this is the article and is most important”, or “These are my main links. Please prioritize to these”.

In addition to that list, there are two more tags I’ll talk about next.

Video and Audio

Audio has been around a while, but video is the new kid on the block for a very good reason. Studies have shown time and time again that people will watch video for far longer than they will read content or listen to someone talk. Our body language says so much about who we are and what we are trying to say. People know it, and they prefer it.

The biggest set back to audio and video on web pages today is the lack of a standard way to do it. Flash is the most common way, but it requires a plugin, doesn’t work on most mobile devices, is harder to customize and can be slow.

The new tags allow very clear cut ways to add audio and video to pages. You can add a poster frame (image before the video plays), easily control the player with javascript, and specify multiple file types. That last one is a very big deal. If the browser can’t play the first type of video, the browser will keep looking down the list to find one that works.


The good news for website owners is that nothing is going to change on existing sites in the near future. First of all it doesn’t have to change. What works today will still work on browsers in the years to come.

Second, ubiquitous browser support won’t happen for quite a while. Firefox 3.5, Safari 4 and iPhone 3.0 are the only ones that support the big video tag. All of these have been release in the last three months. Internet Explorer 8 supports only a few small items in the spec and isn’t worth raving about.

Third, the rumored date for a finalized spec is 2022. The date aside, browsers will implement support for the draft specification that’s out and being to do so in the next 2 years.

Finally, unless you are in a controlled environment that dictates which browser is used, it just doesn’t matter. It will take 4-6 years to cycle out the current browsers that lack the support.

It really is a shame that cycles are this slow. As a team we are excited about the opportunities HTML 5 gives us. We just won’t get to enjoy it for quite a while.