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Before we examine HTML5 in detail, it's helpful to take a step back and explore earlier standards as a way of understanding how HTML5 is being developed and what role earlier versions of HTML played in its development. During the mid 90s, HTML evolved largely through browser manufacturers and community members, recommending and shipping new features. Some of these features would then get adopted by the web design community and by default become a part of HTML. The first standardized release of HTML occurred in 1995, with the release of HTML 2.0.
HTML 2.0 wasn't really forward looking at all, and in fact just standardized rules for HTML that everyone was by and large already using. Things didn't dramatically improve with the HTML 3.0 release either and in fact, the recommendation itself was never adopted. This was quickly followed by the HTML 3.2 release, which was another retrospect that added features that browsers already supported, like tables and applets. The practice of browsers releasing their own proprietary tags and offering differing levels of support for certain features created incredible headaches for designers and developers, who were often forced to create multiple versions of a site to support individual browsers or to simply ignore a particular browser altogether.
All of this came to a head around 1998, when a group of motivated web professionals started the Web Standards Project. They pushed for more standards-based environment and began referring to the World Wide Web Consortium's recommendations as standards. They also put pressure on browser manufacturers to support standards and openly promoted the browsers that did. Now, this push for adopted standards coincided with the release of HTML 4.0, a major milestone in HTML development, which stabilized the language and became the recognized standard for years, and in many ways still is.
Now, in 2000, the W3C released the XHTML 1.0 specification, in hopes that it would replace HTML 4.0 as the standard. XHTML was meant to move the language to a more structured XML-based approach. Although embraced by designers for its strict rules and move towards pure structural markup, it wasn't a dramatic departure from HTML 4 and in fact most browsers continue to render XHTML as HTML, even as they supported the semantics.
In the meantime, the web was changing. The growth of high bandwidth connections, AJAX powered applications, and powerful plug-ins like Flash, created an online experience that users demanded, but that HTML had increasingly little to do with. It was in this environment that work on XHTML 2.0 began, with the focus on becoming a strictly structural language. Because XHTML 2.0 broke with the longstanding practice of being backwards compatible, designers and developers were slow to adopt it and after years of work, the W3C finally ended the group's working charter in 2009, effectively ending XHTML 2.0 before any browser supported it.
A contributing factor to the death of XHTML 2.0 was the work done by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group or WHATWG. Now, WHATWG is a group of developers and designers that were unhappy with the direction of XHTML 2.0 and formed to continue the development of HTML. Their efforts were eventually recognized by the W3C, which has since adopted the work under the name HTML5. HTML5 retains the backwards compatibility of previous versions, while adding new structural tags and support for APIs that will in theory make it easier for designers and developers to build web and mobile applications, serve video and audio, and create richer user experiences for sites.
Now, the interest and support level for HTML5 has exploded in the past year, as companies such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft have begun to aggressively add support for HTML5 to devices and browsers. While there are many opinions on what the future of HTML5 might look like, one thing is certain. HTML5's time has come, and the next few years are going to be very important in shaping how content for the web is created and consumed.
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