Microsoft Opens HTML5 Proving Ground

Microsoft launched an HTML5 laboratory for developers on Tuesday. The company intends the project to be a site where Redmond prototypes early and unstable Web standard specs from standards bodies such as the W3C and shares them with the developer community.

One reason for establishing the lab could be that Microsoft wants to leverage its strong relationship with developers for the Web.

Microsoft could also be playing catch-up with Google, which launched its HTML5-based Body Browser last week, and with Mozilla’s Firefox browser.

About the HTML5 Labs site

The HTML5 Labs site is managed by the Microsoft Interoperability Strategy Group. Currently, it has two prototypes available — IndexedDB and WebSockets

IndexedDB is a draft Web specification for the storage of large amounts of structured data in the browser. WebSockets simplifies bi-directional, full-duplex communications channels over a single TCP socket.

“WebSockets and IndexDB were chosen because the specifications have great potential to provide benefits to a broad audience, but they are currently unstable,” Microsoft spokesperson Anna Imperati told TechNewsWorld.

The WebSocket API (application programming interface) is being standardized by the W3C, and the protocol is being standardized by the IETF, while IndexedDB is a “developing W3C Web standard,” Imperati added.

Microsoft set up the lab to separate prototype implementations from mainstream browser product implementations. For example, in IE9, it’s only delivering on the key parts of HTML5 that are site-ready.

The New Face of Microsoft

With the HTML5 Labs, Microsoft is apparently changing its approach to testing apps — instead of throwing betas out to users, it will offer only relatively stable products.

“Microsoft is focusing much more on finishing products before they send them out these days, largely to both address past bad practices and to more sharply differentiate themselves against Google, which aggressively uses first releases as beta tests,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“Microsoft recognizes that IE9 is a critical product for the company upon which much of its infrastructure resides,” Enderle pointed out.

“They messed IE up once and they intend to never do that again,” he added.

Redmond “historically has had a very strong relationship with developers in other areas, and it looks like it’s trying to apply some of those practices to the Web development community around HTML5,” Ray Valdes, vice president of Web services at Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

“This highlights Microsoft’s recognition of how critical a role developers will play in the success of IE9 and other HTML5-related products,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld. “But one goal here is to ensure that IE9 add-ons and services are robust from the beginning.”

Web Standard Specs Are a Gamble

Web standards are hammered out over time by members of the computer industry, and they’re not always stable until they’ve been finally ratified. Sometimes, only parts of a standard are stable. Such is the case with HTML5.

“There are certain subsystems of HTML5 that are more volatile than others,” Gartner’s Valdes stated. “Some go through a trajectory that looks good but they reach an impasse.”

WebSQL is one such specification. It’s supported by Safari, Chromium 4 and Opera.

“For the last three years, WebSQL was gong to be the primary mechanism for offline storage, then the committee reached an impasse and work stopped,” Valdes remarked.

IndexDB is “the presumed replacement for HTML5,” Valdes said. However, it’s fairly new, having only emerged over the past couple of months, and browser vendors haven’t been able to incorporate it into their products, with the exception of Mozilla, which has implemented it in Firefox 4. It’s also scheduled to be supported by Chromium Milestone 9.

“At this point, HTML5 standards are moving targets,” Pund-IT’s King stated. “But it’s better for developers to get involved early and tweak their offerings along the way than to start late and deliver half-baked offerings.”

Catching Up to the Competition

Perhaps Microsoft is also trying to make sure IE9 can compete with other browsers on the market.

The Internet Explorer browser, which once had well over 90 percent of the browser market, had only 42.5 percent at the end of November, according to W3Counter’s statistics.

Firefox came in a reasonably close second with 32 percent of the market, and Google’s quickly growing Chrome came in third with a tad over 13 percent.

“HTML5 isn’t prevalent enough to exert a significant commercial impact, but Google’s launch last week of its Body Browser caused quite a stir, and gave the company something of a leg up in HTML5 thought leadership,” Pund-IT’s King remarked. “Though it isn’t anywhere near as high profile as the Body Browser, the Microsoft Labs does reflect a similar sort of effort.”

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