You've heard the hype, but still wonder: what is HTML5, exactly? Here, we offer a primer on everything marketers need to know about the new web language. Plus: the most innovative sites using HTML5 right now.

Written by
Caroline McCarthy
January 2012

A great digital campaign lifts content off the screen, presenting the user with something that almost amounts to magic. But creating these experiences has typically been anything but magical, thanks to plugin, download, and different version requirements, and the reality that many users will encounter endless lag times rather than the promised enchantment.

The solution to such problems, if you believe the hype, is something called HTML5. It’s the most recent version of the language that built the web, one which, not long ago, was only capable of producing basic images and text. Blending ‘traditional’ HTML with functionalities once reserved for more advanced languages like XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript, it’s thrilled the digital world with its potential: Plugin-free video players; local storage and caching; and lightning-fast load times eliminating lag. Best of all, HTML5 can be carried over to smartphone browsers, too, meaning that you may no longer need to develop an arsenal of apps for different platforms. More complex species of videos, games, and interactive experiences can now come straight to the browser – no downloading required. For developers, marketers, and users alike, this is big news.

Users want web apps that are beautiful and interactive, but they also want them to be fast.

“There are lots of features of HTML5 that can speed up the performance of web apps, resulting in a much better user experience,” says Jan Kleinert, a Google developer advocate who specializes in HTML5 and its use in the Chrome browser. “Users want web apps that are beautiful and interactive, but they also want them to be fast.”

So what’s the catch? As with any new technology, there will be teething problems. For one thing, ‘HTML5’ has already started to become a (misleading) label for anything cool in the browser that doesn’t require Flash, potentially leading to confusion and a lack of understanding.

“Marketers are interested in HTML5 but often toss the name around without knowing what it really means from a technical perspective,” says Hashem Bajwa, director of digital strategy at agency Droga5. “Marketers who care about their online content should also care how it gets presented technically. Understanding the role HTML5 can have on marketing requires a broader understanding of how your content gets developed, deployed, and maintained online. HTML5 isn’t a singular thing, either – it works with many technologies like CSS, JavaScript, and geolocation to really bring things to life.”

So it’s worth getting educated, something which the site is designed to help accomplish. Learn about the temporary red tape: Many users, for example, will need to upgrade to a modern browser for the full experience, which means that any marketer looking to undertake an HTML5-based campaign or site makeover would do well to get up to speed with the technology. Are your users likely to be using browsers that are up-to-date, or ones that haven’t seen a revamp since the <blink> tag’s heyday in the HTML2 era? Beyond that, is there real substance to your campaign, or is it just an array of shiny effects?

“It could be considered confusing, but one can positively focus on the fact that people actually care,” says Tom Uglow, a London-based lead in the Google Creative Lab. “The idea of a new generation of HTML being embraced as a unique selling proposition is pretty cool. HTML5 has created a sense of optimism that is uplifting for designers and developers alike. That’s a positive for the internet, and, more importantly, for the user. It doesn’t matter too much as long as it drives the web forward.”


Nike Better World

A blend of bold photos and animation makes this guide to the sneaker brand’s philanthropy and sustainability initiatives jump right off your monitor.

Games for Cats

Cat food brand Friskies created these games to give kitties a way to play with tablet devices. Using HTML5 instead of native apps ensures they can purr on every platform.

Toyota Prius Projects

Bright, eye-popping visuals that create the feel of an interactive drawing board give shape to the story and development of the hybrid car brand.

Financial Times

It was big news in the digital world when the UK-based newspaper ditched its mobile apps in favor of an HTML5 experience that has earned acclaim from both sides of the pond.

World’s Biggest Pac-Man

Agency Soap Creative built this experience for Namco Bandai’s beloved ghost-munching game. Users are encouraged to create their own mazes and add them to the grid.