My colleague Scott Fulton writes today on the Software Quality Connection website that the proliferation of browser versions and supposed HTML standards have created a confusing series of choices for browser baselines for corporate developers.

Clearly, the baseline is no longer IE6, a browser version that Microsoft hasn't supported for years (although our story here gives credence to its popularity and how you can keep it alive within your corporation using a variety of virtualization tricks).

Fulton mentions how both Microsoft and Mozilla are announcing multiple new versions of their browsers, and how version numbers have become meaningless. HTML5 is not really the next update in the standards set from HTML4; indeed, there is no single set of standards around it. The original Web standards consortium, called the W3C, now has a separate and somewhat parallel effort called the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), composed of representatives from Apple, Mozilla, Opera and lately Google. (You can see the technical differences between the two groups with respect to HTML5 here.)

What all this means is that gone are the days when you can keep track. In the dark past, when it was Microsoft vs. Netscape, it was easy to keep a scorecard - and have just a couple of browser versions - on your desktop for testing purposes. Now, with five major vendors (Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, Apple, and Google), the multiple simultaneous versions from each vendor and the different desktop and mobile versions, the number of tests combinations can seem nearly infinite.

Fulton compiles a "master list" of HTML5 features, which I'll summarize (it is worth reading his copious treatment):

  1. Document sections
  2. Better video tagging and codecs
  3. WebSocket APIs for exchanging messages between Web servers and clients
  4. WebForms for better text handling without the need to write Javascript code
  5. Canvas support for drawing pictures on the page and
  6. Web Storage for persistent cookieless storage

This is just his interpretation. The actual folks who work on the standards see things differently, and what this means is that there are a lot of new features that may or may not be a part of any browser. CanIuse.com, is a great reference and gives you an idea of the many dimensions of the problem by showing you which browsers offer support for particular technologies. And looking for a more basic HTML5 explanation, you might want to go to DiveIntoHTML5.

Bruce Lawson, a Web evangelist for Opera Software says: "You wouldn't believe how many e-mails I get saying, 'Bruce, would you give me some feedback on my HTML5 page,' and I look at it, and it's no more HTML5 than my vacuum cleaner."

So welcome to the new HTML, whatever you want to call it. As websites update their content in real-time, so too do the engineers who write the code for the next collection of browsers and the n+1th collection they are also working on concurrently. Get used to the continuous upgrade.