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November 26, 2015

So… is HTML really a programming language?
byBill RayinLanguages

Earlier this year we polled more than 13,000 developers during our biannual Developer Economics survey (updating now), and 11% of those developers told us that HTML is their primary development language – that’s Hypertext Markup Language to the uninitiated. This response immediately begs the question: can HTML really be considered a “programming language” at all, or if we should consign to being a tool for the layout of JavaScript functions?


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Developers answering our survey were asked to pick from a list of languages, HTML5 was on that list, along with JavaScript and more-traditional languages including C and Java. Most programmers work in more than one language, so perhaps those who selected HTML5 as their primary language really meant that they were JavaScript programmers who used a lot of HTML? It’s a nice thought, but the idea breaks down when look at those additional languages and see that only 13% of those who said their primary language was HTML admitted to also using JavaScript, so how are these people creating applications?

14% said they also use ActionScript, which can also come wrapped in HTML, but 12% of those primarily using HTML said they also program in C/C++, which is a combination we’re unlikely to see in the same project.

HTML was never designed as a programming language – the original 18 tags permitted the most-basic of layout options. The only interesting tag was the hyperlink itself; the revolutionary concept that created the web as we now know it, the rest are trivial. HTML was based, loosely, on SGML, which is another bastard offspring of XML – the eXtensible Markup Language – but the key word across these is “markup”: all three are intended to provide syntactical data to accompany textual information*, not applications as we know them.

But HTML has come a very long way since then, and has capabilities we would normally associate with a development language. Drag and Drop, Geolocation, and Local Storage, are blurring the line between applications and web sites, allowing cross-platform development where the only way to spot the difference is the title bar at the top of the window (and sometimes not even then), and there are a host of applications which bear testament to the fact that HTML can be used to create real applications.

Zero Lines JS is a fine example. A graphical game, requiring the player to navigate their ship between approaching enemies at increasing speed to a suitably-irritating soundtrack. It might not be the next Watch Dogs, or even the next Candy Crush Saga, but it would be hard to deny that it is a real application and one which (as the name infers) is written entirely in HTML with a few Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Less gaudy is the aptly named “You Don’t Need JavaScript for That”, which demonstrates various techniques to accomplish programmatical tasks without recourse to programming languages. Examples include a tabbed panel (bringing content to the front based on the selected tab) and an image slideshow, all done entirely in HTML5.

Purists will moan, of course, that these examples don’t make it a “real” programming language, that HTML is nothing more than a markup language made to enrich documents, and there was a time when that was true. Developers aren’t as hierarchal as they used to be, but those closer to the metal still look down on those who’ve traded an intimate knowledge of the hardware for speed of development. C programmers consider objects to be unnecessary fluff, but concur with users of C++ that anything which isn’t run through a compiler is just improper (and that includes Java with its bytecode nonsense). Java programmers consider anything without proper encapsulation to be faking its object orientation, while JavaScript developers see no reason for strong typing, and consider HTML to be a layout tool.

Meanwhile those versed in Assembler look down from their ivory towers, stroke their beards, and concur that when performance really matters they will always get the gig.

But despite being at the bottom of the heap we can see that HTML5 is being used to create applications, and it must therefore be considered a programming language. We might argue whether validating a filled-out form constitutes an application, but when you can crash a spaceship into an oncoming armada then there’s little room for discussion.

At Vision Mobile we’re currently updating our survey, asking developers what language and tools they’re now using, including those who choose to program in HTML. It will be interesting to see if an increasing number think that the layout tool has evolved, or if a momentary fad is passing. Take a look at the survey, and use the feedback from at the end to let us know how you feel about HTML being included in the list of languages, and what you think might end up on that list next time.

* To be accurate, XML is intended to be a framework from which one can derive markup languages, but that’s not really pertinent here.


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