Apple and Adobe’s recent spat over standards, performance, so-called “openness,” and Flash has been entertaining to say the least. Especially since those of us watching this imbroglio from within the development community know that we’re watching a very calculated strategy, like a game of chess, being played out. However, in this game there are more than two players involved because Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla have a huge vested interest in how this game pans out.

HTML 5 is Going to be Big

Regardless of where you stand on the current war brewing between Apple and Adobe, it’s becoming more and more obvious that HTML 5 is trending towards becoming a reality. And for developers, that’s something to take note of–because, for years now, HTML 5 has been nothing more than a promise of something better to come.

Even if you take a highly skeptical view of Steve Jobs trying to claim that he wants to embrace HTML 5 as the path to future bliss, there’s no getting around the fact that Flash rose to dominance at a time when the mouse was king. Not so with today’s touch-screen devices (be they iPads, iPhones, iPods, or even Android or Windows Phone 7 Series). Steve Jobs is rightly concerned about with Flash’s stability and power consumption, plus Flash is simply less appealing than it used to be. As they say on the web, Flash is so last year. This is OK by me and others like me who have pretty much hated Flash for a long time–even if we don’t buy all of Steve’s justifications for building his empire without Flash in it.

However, we need to remember that most video sites use Flash as a way to deliver video to end users–and right now, video is a huge part of the web. This is where HTML 5 comes in with its game-changing native support for video via the <video /> tag and other goodies.

The Trend Toward HTML 5

Microsoft’s control of the browser market recently dropped below 60%. Firefox controls another 23%, and Google’s Chrome is quickly gaining ground with a bit under 7% of the current market (representing roughly a 4x gain in market share over the last year). Opera and Safari both control very minor segments of the market, but all the non-IE browsers combined represent almost 35% of the current browser market. And that’s nothing to sneeze at – especially if that 35% represents a large number of trend-setters.

Furthermore, compare that roughly 35% control with a great visual representation of HTML 5 and CSS3 support in modern browsers, and you can draw some interesting conclusions. First of all, if you open that graphic/page in Internet Explorer, you’re greeted by pure gibberish. But, if you open it in another browser, you’ll see that Chrome, Safari, and Opera all do a great job of implementing a very wide range of HTML 5/ CSS 3 features. Firefox comes in with a fairly solid second-place showing, and Microsoft is decidedly bringing up the rear in this new race to HTML 5.

HTML 5 and Microsoft

When the bigger areas of focus for Microsoft in the past year or so have been Bing and Windows Phone 7, it’s hard to shake the idea that they’re just trying to catch up to the competition instead of trying to lead in their own direction. Likewise, when there’s a renewed emphasis on the importance of HTML 5 blog post that comes out within hours of Steve Jobs’ thoughts it’s hard to shake the idea that Microsoft isn’t just saying “us too!”

Of course, Microsoft HAS been working on HTML 5 as a focus for IE9 for a while now. So the IE9 and HTML 5 video post on the IE blog wasn’t exactly an “us too!” post. However, if you read Steve Jobs’ letter, and this post, it’s abundantly clear that Microsoft’s Dean Hachamovitch WAS clearly responding to Jobs’ release earlier that morning. That, and while IE9 will have support for HTML 5 video, its overall support for HTML 5 in general still seriously lags behind that of the other browsers that are slowly, but surely, chipping away at Microsoft’s market share. Likewise, Microsoft effectively just released IE8, so who knows when IE9 will come to market.

 HTML 5, Microsoft, and Developers

Which leads to the question: IS Microsoft falling behind when it comes to HTML 5? From a browser perspective, it’s clear that they are. Likewise, Visual Studio 2010 just released and really has no effective support for HTML 5—other than an add-on project that provides HTML 5 IntelliSense.

In Microsoft’s defense though, it’s pretty hard to add something like development support for HTML 5 when the spec hasn’t been fully developed or completed. Especially since Microsoft has drawn a lot of ire in the past by rushing to implement their own approaches to newer technologies (such as HTML, XDR/XSD, and so on).

The real question here should be whether all of the negative press that Microsoft has endured in the past over its rush to implement new standards has made it gun-shy. If so, the follow-up question would have to be whether or not Microsoft risks losing market-share by trying to please too many people? (In the end, Apple doesn’t seem to give a damn about what developers think – they only appear interested in what end-users and the market thinks. And, back in the day, Microsoft wasn’t trying to please developers when it rose to power with Internet Explorer 4.)

In looking over recent years, there’s been a definite trend by the IE team (especially) to try and push IE forward with increased standards compliance. Ironically, it looks like that trend has, in turn, left IE in the dust when it comes to implementing HTML 5 features, while Mozilla, Google, and Apple have gone full-steam ahead and implemented their own specs for HTML 5; something that Microsoft would have been excoriated for by developers had they gone down that path.

For Good or Ill: Keep Your Eyes on HTML 5

Ultimately, no matter how this elaborate chess game pans out, it’s becoming more and more apparent that developers need to start paying attention to HTML 5. Consequently, watch for a few articles here over the next few months that address some of the benefits and the pitfalls of HTML 5.