Is HTML finally getting there?

I just finished my first presentation done completely in HTML5. Ever since I made the move to plain text for most of my writing a few years ago I’ve been looking for a way to make presentations without resorting to PowerPoint or Keynote. I knew that I could use PDFs but somehow just throwing up static PDFs onto a screen didn’t really seem the best for a presentation.

Recently a very well done HTML5 presentation demo made the rounds on the intertubes. On the HTML5 Rocks website they had a template for the presentation and so I downloaded and used it to roll my own. It’s not the flashiest thing in web, but it certainly holds its own against most PowerPoint presentations and is definitely better than any PDF presentation I’ve seen.

Making that presentation brought me around to the view that maybe, just maybe, HTML is getting close to becoming a usable and fairly universal documentation format. The combination of HTML5, CSS3 and faster JavaScript engines becoming commonplace has made things like HTML slideshows not only possible, but actually attractive. I think we’re at the point where we can seriously consider completely ditching proprietary binary formats (I’m looking at you, Word) and go for full-on hyperlinked documents as our main format for sharing information.

That being said, I’m not saying that writing in HTML is the best thing to do. After HTML is a flavor of XML and writing bare XML by hand is just painful. The only case where writing HTML by hand makes sense is when you want really good control of the layout (like on my static webpage). Creating the presentation in pure HTML was a good learning experience, but I definitely want to wrap it in some sort of templating system. What I really want to see is powerful tools that write to HTML and CSS for the styling and content and maybe even auto-generate custom JavaScript for animation and the like.

One of the best systems that generate HTML is the Emacs org-mode. The documentation for my last project was written entirely in lightly marked up plain text and automatically converted to HTML. The only code I really had to write was the CSS for it, which is pretty simple. It might be possible to use org-mode for generating my slides too, but it’s not something that I’ve explored in any detail. It’s certainly possible to create PDF slides (using export to LaTeX) and perhaps some variation of that will work for me.

Even though Google Docs is pretty decent tool, I feel they’re woefully under-utilizing HTML5’s true potential. In particular the slideshow app is very bare bones when it could easily be much better. Strangely enough, Google has made some really strong inroads in other areas. For example, their font API lets you use a number of really good fonts by just including a few links of code in the header of your HTML. Google Docs should really be able to plug into their font API and let us use those fonts in docs and presentations.

I really think that we can live in a world where HTML provides all our text documentation needs (and efficiently includes audio and video as needed). I’m going to be starting a little experiment where all my documentation for my honors is done in plain text and automatically exported to clean HTML. I’m also hoping that for my final written thesis I’ll be able to write in some plain-text source format (probably org-mode) and do painless exports to both good-looking HTML and LaTeX for making print PDFs. I’ll also be using HTML5 for all my presentations from now. Stay tuned over the next few months on how these experiments turn out.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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