The Mixed Blessings of HTML5

By Commenter Matt Hindle on at

The last few years have seen some huge developments in the world of online technologies. Flash is a dying platform, abandoned now by Android and relegated to a selection of whitelisted sites by the modern version of IE10, and HTML5 is becoming the norm for rich interactivity. This must be a boon for developers of web-based resources, right? Wrong.

I’ve worked in digital media for over 13 years, and spent the last five and a half working in e-learning. Things have changed massively over those five years; web technology has progressed and improved, meaning that we’ve got far more tools at our disposal now. There was a time when you had two real choices -- develop in Flash, or develop something that looked terrible and lacked real interactivity. We generally went for the Flash option, at the behest of our clients.

This had its benefits. You could make it look really nice, relatively easily, and ActionScript allowed us to make quite complicated interactions. Moreover, Flash -- in general -- looked and acted the same regardless of which browser and OS you were using. Sure, you couldn’t use it on a smartphone, but in those days smartphones were generally things like the Nokia N95, and the new and exciting iPhone wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. Tablets were something you got from the pharmacy when you had a headache or a nasty rash. Mobile learning -- or m-learning, as it was futuristically dubbed -- was spoken about in whitepapers, but rarely used in anger.

Naturally, it wasn’t entirely without issues. Working with government agencies often meant that the target audience were using hardware that was outdated and locked down. We all wanted to develop using the latest browsers, to make sure that everything worked as it should, but this was often not possible. Flash also had its own idiosyncrasies. It was slow and prone to crash. Driving the Flash wrapper using content stored in XML files sometimes led to the templates loading before the content did, and in these cases the placeholder lorem ipsum text would be displayed, which had the predictable (but still amusing) result of clients complaining that their resources were in Spanish or Italian (clearly many of our clients didn’t study Latin at school. Shame).

As technology progressed, and large-screened smartphones and tablets became more prevalent, we started to wonder how we could embrace HTML5 and its related technologies and create learning and training materials that could be used across different platforms and browsers. The fact that we’ve always prided ourselves on being more of a bespoke boutique who make tailor-made learning solutions also helped to drive this; we didn’t want to make identikit resources. We wanted to innovate and to match our products to the clients’ needs, which often weren’t for an online textbook or a traditional page-turning course.

HTML5 and jQuery seemed like a godsend. To be fair, they are. We can now do things with HTML that we wouldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago. We can even make resources that clients can edit and update themselves with a minimum of technical knowledge. Libraries like jQuery and Backbone can provide a framework in which we can build exciting and engaging materials, and there’s a wealth of community guidance and help available for using various tools and technologies.

So, the downside? Well, the main one is the bugbear of cross platform compatibility. Yes, HTML works across platforms and browsers -- it is, after all, the building blocks on which the world wide web is built. However, what’s not immediately obvious is that different browsers interpret HTML commands in different ways.

HTML5 is still a nascent technology. We use this mainly for playing videos, and when it works, it works brilliantly. We can now make materials that automatically detect whether you’re viewing on a phone, a tablet or a computer, and change the screen layout accordingly. It also decides which video type to play; HTML5 standards still not finalised, we have a range of video types that we have to include to ensure that it plays on different devices.

As an example, if we have a resource with video that needs to work on Chrome, Firefox, IE and mobile browsers, we have to make up to four different versions of the video. Firstly, we have up to two flavours of MP4 -- some are too complex to play on an iPhone, so if we want big, high-quality video on the desktop version we have to make a version for that, and then a lower-quality version for the iPhone. Then, we have to make OGV and WebM versions too, to make sure it plays in all browsers. IE only supports HTML5 video in versions 9 and 10 -- anything below this defaults to a Flash-based fallback (although it thankfully uses the MP4 version of the video -- we don’t have to have a separate FLV).

Contrast this to the olden days when we just had to make a single FLV, and you can imagine that the time we had to spend making and testing the videos has increased by quite a bit. Not only that -- it also has a significant effect on the size of a course. Where once one video would be used, we now have up to four, and a poster image. When we’re making content packages to upload to Virtual Learning Environments, this can be an issue in itself.

Finally, testing. Creating a solution that promises to work across all browsers and platforms means that we’ve got to make damn sure that it does, and the marketplace is increasingly fragmented. Whilst testing has always been an important part of the development process (and some of us in the office have a background in software QA), we’ve never had to spend quite as long testing across different platforms. And in our testing, we’re constantly finding new ways in which different browsers interpret JavaScript, or CSS, so then there’s time needed to make fixes. It’s a learning curve, though -- the difficulty is keeping up with the advances in technology while still developing projects. There’s no time to rest on our laurels.

So. The next few years are going to be very exciting, from one perspective; improvements in web technologies are going to allow us to do marvellous things and make e-learning more fun, more engaging and more interactive. On the other hand, we’re going to be held back by clients insisting on sticking with restrictive old technology, and coordinating testing is going to become ever more difficult. Still, good times to be working in the industry.

Matt Hindle is an e-learning producer from Sheffield who has worked in digital media for over 13 years, and is currently on the lookout for a new job. You can read his blog here.

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