No doubt you've heard at least a whisper about HTML5 over the last year. It's a Flash-killer. It's the only way to get multimedia on mobile devices. It's not going to be ready for use until 2022. It's going to save the world.

There's a lot of hype and a lot of confusion.

One thing that complicates the situation is that the spec is still technically undergoing revision, even as it's currently being used in web development projects around the world. As of January 2011, it's considered a "living standard," and browsers are continuing to change as the spec is revised.

Another complication is that "HTML5" is often used to refer to a range of modern web technologies. Simply speaking, HTML is the language that the Web is written in, and HTML5 is the most recent version of it. But because there are a lot of other technologies commonly used to create rich experiences on the web these days (such as CSS3 and JavaScript), those get wrapped up into the the abbreviation "HTML5" in colloquial speech. There are those who think that's a bad thing - one suggestion I've seen is replacing "HTML5" with "NEWT" when it's being used to encompass more than the markup language - and while I like the idea (and the acronym), I don't really consider it desirable to throw more jargon into the mix. I often use the phrase "the HTML5 stack" to communicate more clearly, but to me, the main thing is that people have good resources to keep them up to date on the capabilities of the technology, the delivery platforms, and the authoring tools.

And that brings us to one final complication: The makers of authoring tools - the people we often count on to help us deliver on our designs - aren't always very invested in helping us cut through the hype to find what we need.

So what's an elearning designer - or developer - to do? Sit this one out? Change jobs? Take that early retirement? I say none of the above! Here's a quick primer on just what you need to know for e-learning (except the code).

Why is HTML5 important?
When I asked this question to a group I was speaking to about HTML5 authoring tools last month, about half of them held up their iPads. Good answer!

Apple has never allowed Flash on iOS devices (iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads), but these devices are way too popular for us to ignore their users. And just recently, Adobe announced that it is stopping development on the version of Flash Player that is used on all other mobile devices, as well. Even on desktop and laptop browsers, the Flash plug-in can be problematicdespite its great service over the last ten years providing the ability to rich multimedia experiences over the web.

But HTML output that you can create with tools like Lectora and ToolBook is usually sostatic. How are we supposed to deliver those rich learning experiences that our learners are used to if we can't output to Flash?

Well, HTML5 has the vast majority of the capabilities that Flash has, as well as much more widespread ability to play on mobile devices.

What can you do with HTML5?
You can build rich, app-like experiences. Blah, blah, blah.

Let me try that again.

You can make pretty stuff. You can make stuff that that responds to the learner's input and understands gestures that used to require plugins. You can make coolmultimediaexperiences. You can make apps for sketching, image editing, and sound editing. You can make a drum kit. You can make a musical instrument out of the NYC subway route. You can rebuild Quake (warning: violence) and Angry Birds. (Caveat: Angry Birds still has a tiny amount of Flash built-in, for sound only as I understand). You can build lots of other games, as well.

Now, can you do all of these things? Probably not. I certainly can't. But people who are skilled with the technology can. It wasn't too long ago that it took a lot of skill with Flash to build the things we can create easily with rapid development tools today. We are going to have some growing pains while our tools catch up.

What can't HTML5 do?
There are limitations (and there is an ongoing discussion about this on my individual blog), but the main point we should be concerned with is whether it can support the things we want to do in developing e-learning, not how all of HTML5's capabilities stack up to those of other technologies. From what I've seen - and just based on the samples I linked above - the differences are at the margins. Most elearning designs aren't going to cause the HTML5 stack to break a sweat.

Speaking of other technologies is it going to kill Flash?
As Justin promised, I'm not going to waste your time on this debate. The material point for us is that if we need to produce non-Flash content so that that it can play on some devices, why bother producing a separate Flash version, as well?

If I want to deliver HTML5 output, which tools should I use?
A couple of months ago, I contributed an article to T+D on some of the more capable tools available, and I hope to report on more of them in coming months. Ones to watch in particular: Adobe Captivate is testing HTML5 output, Articulate has announced that the upcoming Storyline will output to HTML5, and Allen Technologies has announced that they are working on HTML5 output for ZebraZapps, as well.
But in addition, I would encourage you to check out tools that are not specifically built for elearning, such as Adobe Dreamweaver for full-fledged authoring and Tumult Hype and Sencha Animator for animation. Not only will it broaden your development skill set, it could encourage you to start broadening your design ideasespecially if you've been using rapid authoring tools for a while.

Will my learners be able to see it?
It depends. One of the great things about HTML5 is the ability to gracefully degrade content, or offer different versions of content depending on which browsers (and which versions) your audience has. For a quick graphical view of which browsers support which features and how support has been added over time, see HTML5 & CSS Readiness; for more nitty-gritty and frequently-update details, see When can I use. In general, mobile browsers present less of a concern than desktop/laptop browsers, because they're more frequently updated and almost all of them are built upon the same HTML5-friendly technology.

What else?
I hope this post answered some of your existing questions and I look forward to hearing any others you have!

Update: ZebraZapps added to the "tools to watch for" list.

Judy Unrein designs learning solutions at Artisan E-Learning, blogs at E-Learning Uncovered and onehundredfortywords, and tweets at @jkunrein.