HTML5: Tool of Satan, or Yule of Santa?

It would lead to unseasonal arguments to discuss the title of this piece here, and the arguments are as indigestible as the fourth turkey curry of the season, so we’ll restrict our article to the practical rather than the philosophical: what HTML5 can you reasonably expect to be able to use reliably cross-browser in the early months of 2010?

The answer is that you can use more than you might think, due to the seasonal tinsel of feature-detection and using the sparkly pixie-dust of IE-only VML (but used in a way that won’t damage your Elf).

Canvas

canvas is a 2D drawing API that defines a blank area of the screen of arbitrary size, and allows you to draw on it using JavaScript. The pictures can be animated, such as in this canvas mashup of Wolfenstein 3D and Flickr. (The difference between canvas and SVG is that SVG uses vector graphics, so is infinitely scalable. It also keeps a DOM, whereas canvas is just pixels so you have to do all your own book-keeping yourself in JavaScript if you want to know where aliens are on screen, or do collision detection.)

Previously, you needed to do this using Adobe Flash or Java applets, requiring plugins and potentially compromising keyboard accessibility. Canvas drawing is supported now in Opera, Safari, Chrome and Firefox. The reindeer in the corner is, of course, Internet Explorer, which currently has zero support for canvas (or SVG, come to that).

Now, don’t pull a face like all you’ve found in your Yuletide stocking is a mouldy satsuma and a couple of nuts—that’s not the end of the story. Canvas was originally an Apple proprietary technology, and Internet Explorer had a similar one called Vector Markup Language which was submitted to the W3C for standardisation in 1998 but which, unlike canvas, was not blessed with retrospective standardisation.

What you need, then, is some way for Internet Explorer to translate canvas to VML on-the-fly, while leaving the other, more standards-compliant browsers to use the HTML5. And such a way exists—it’s a JavaScript library called excanvas. It’s downloadable from http://code.google.com/p/explorercanvas/ and it’s simple to include it via a conditional comment in the head for IE:

<!--[if IE]>
<script src="excanvas.js"></script>
<![endif]-->

Simply include this, and your canvas will be natively supported in the modern browsers (and the library won’t even be downloaded) whereas IE will suddenly render your canvas using its own VML engine. Be sure, however, to check it carefully, as the IE JavaScript engine isn’t so fast and you’ll need to be sure that performance isn’t too degraded to use.

Forms

Since the beginning of the Web, developers have been coding forms, and then writing JavaScript to check whether an input is a correctly formed email address, URL, credit card number or conforms to some other pattern. The cumulative labour of the world’s developers over the last 15 years makes whizzing round in a sleigh and delivering presents seem like popping to the corner shop in comparison.

With HTML5, that’s all about to change. As Yaili began to explore on Day 3, a host of new attributes to the input element provide built-in validation for email address formats (input type=email), URLs (input type=url), any pattern that can be expressed with a JavaScript-syntax regex (pattern="[0-9][A-Z]{3}") and the like. New attributes such as required, autofocus, input type=number min=3 max=50 remove much of the tedious JavaScript from form validation.

Other, really exciting input types are available (see all input types). The datalist is reminiscent of a select box, but allows the user to enter their own text if they don’t want to choose one of the pre-defined options. input type=range is rendered as a slider, while input type=date pops up a date picker, all natively in the browser with no JavaScript required at all.

Currently, support is most complete in an experimental implementation in Opera and a number of the new attributes in Webkit-based browsers. But don’t let that stop you! The clever thing about the specification of the new Web Forms is that all the new input types are attributes (rather than elements). input defaults to input type=text, so if a browser doesn’t understand a new HTML5 type, it gracefully degrades to a plain text input.

So where does that leave validation in those browsers that don’t support Web Forms? The answer is that you don’t retire your pre-existing JavaScript validation just yet, but you leave it as a fallback after doing some feature detection. To detect whether (say) input type=email is supported, you make a new input type=email with JavaScript but don’t add it to the page. Then, you interrogate your new element to find out what its type attribute is. If it’s reported back as “email”, then the browser supports the new feature, so let it do its work and don’t bring in any JavaScript validation. If it’s reported back as “text”, it’s fallen back to the default, indicating that it’s not supported, so your code should branch to your old validation routines. Alternatively, use the small (7K) Modernizr library which will do this work for you and give you JavaScript booleans like Modernizr.inputtypes[email] set to true or false.

So what does this buy you? Well, first and foremost, you’re future-proofing your code for that time when all browsers support these hugely useful additions to forms. Secondly, you buy a usability and accessibility win. Although it’s tempting to style the stuffing out of your form fields (which can, incidentally, lead to madness), whatever your branding people say, it’s better to leave forms as close to the browser defaults as possible. A browser’s slider and date pickers will be the same across different sites, making it much more comprehensible to users. And, by using native controls rather than faking sliders and date pickers with JavaScript, your forms are much more likely to be accessible to users of assistive technology.

HTML5 DOCTYPE

You can use the new DOCTYPE !doctype html now and – hey presto – you’re writing HTML5, as it’s pretty much a superset of HTML4. There are some useful advantages to doing this. The first is that the HTML5 validator (I use http://html5.validator.nu) also validates ARIA information, whereas the HTML4 validator doesn’t, as ARIA is a new spec developed after HTML4. (Actually, it’s more accurate to say that it doesn’t validate your ARIA attributes, but it doesn’t automatically report them as an error.)

Another advantage is that HTML5 allows tabindex as a global attribute (that is, on any element). Although originally designed as an accessibility bolt-on, I ordinarily advise you don’t use it; a well-structured page should provide a logical tab order through links and form fields already.

However, tabindex="-1" is a legal value in HTML5 as it allows for the element to be programmatically focussable by JavaScript. It’s also very useful for correcting a bug in Internet Explorer when used with a keyboard; in-page links go nowhere if the destination doesn’t have a proprietary property called hasLayout set or a tabindex of -1.

So, whether it is the tool of Satan or yule of Santa, HTML5 is just around the corner. Some you can use now, and by the end of 2010 I predict you’ll be able to use a whole lot more as new browser versions are released.

About the author

Bruce Lawson evangelises Open Web Standards for the Opera web browser, and has spent far too much time in 2009 thinking about HTML5.

More articles by Bruce

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