Thank you, Microsoft; HTML5 Canvas is a go!

Published on in HTML, Microsoft Internet Explorer, tech, Trident.

Today, exactly 217 days after the first Internet Explorer 9 announcement, Microsoft has released the third Developer Preview of the latest version of their browser. One of the most awaited and unannounced features this preview brings is the addition of the HTML5 Canvas Element. Defined in section 4.8.11 of the HTML5 specification, already implemented in all other major browsers, and now upcoming for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9: 2D Canvas is a go!

The history of <canvas>

The first signs of the -then still proprietary- element were committed to the WebKit source tree by Richard Williamson on the 25th of May, 2004. Apple’s idea came down to exposing Mac OS X’s Quartz drawing system to JavaScript and HTML in order to ease up writing graphical widgets for the Apple Dashboard. Consequently, as both products share the rendering engine, the element became available in the Safari browser as well.

In July of that year Dave Hyatt announced the new element on the Surfin’ Safari blog. This immediately brought up a lot of controversy, of which Eric Meyer’s post is a clear example: “What the bleeding hell?!?” In defense, Hyatt elaborates Apple’s rationales for including the proprietary features and said to submit a proposal to the WHATWG lists, however, it never came. Ian Hickson therefore, despite his opinion on how Apple handled the new elements, reverse engineered a draft based on available source code.

Mozilla Firefox

A few years earlier, late October 2001, Joe Hewitt opened bug 102285 in Mozilla’s bug tracker. Sharing the same name and rationale, his proposal was to implement a custom painting control to Mozilla’s XML User Interface Language. Interestingly enough, Brendan Eich, founder of the JavaScript language, tore down the idea as something for rendering fanboys. The patches were never used, and inclusion in official builds was unlikely, as Eric Murphy stated in the discussion.

On the first day of April in 2005 Mozilla’s Vladimir Vukicevic uploaded a patch featuring basic canvas functionalities, which opened the road for further work in Firefox. While this first implementation only worked on Linux due to different color formats on Windows and Mac OS X, the release of their “Deer Park” project late November, known as Firefox 1.5, featured a cross-platform implementation of canvas.

Opera introduced the <canvas> element mid 2006 with their Opera 9 release, in quite a humble way (can you see it without searching?). This meant that all major browsers, with the exception of Internet Explorer, implemented the element natively. However, it didn’t mean that the element was unusable, as Google’s ExCanvas and Mozilla’s IECanvas projects brought limited support for the element to Microsoft’s browser.

The long and juridical path to standardization

The path to proper standardization wasn’t very smooth. This began with the lack of a proper proposal coming from Apple’s side, resulting in the initial specification being based on reverse engineering works by Ian “Hixie” Hickson, editor of the HTML5 specification. In 2005, Jayant Sai brought up an initial idea for drawing text on a canvas, which later got formalized into a decent proposal by Stefan Haustein.

However, not everything went nice and smooth. After Mozilla Firefox and Opera had implemented the element, Apple’s Senior Patent Counsel Helene Plotka Workman sent a message to the WHATWG and Ian Hickson stating that Apple believed to have intellectual property over the canvas element, and would only consider to release these IP Rights if the Web Applications draft would become a formalized draft standard with the W3C.

Despite the fact that the rationale behind Apple’s message was unclear, the timing of their message was interesting. Exactly a week before, the W3C would be re-launching the HTML Working Group. Less than half a year later, in February 2008, the first draft of the HTML5 specification was published as a W3C Working Draft. On the 18th of June that year, Apple disclosed patent 11/144384 for use by the HTML5 specification. The same patent has been disclosed in six other jurisdictions, enabling the WHATWG to continue including <canvas>.

Going 3-dimensional with WebGL

More recently, on December 10 last year, Mozilla’s Arun Ranganathan announced the first draft of the WebGL specification. While you would expect the specification to be hosted by either the WHATWG or the W3C, because it defines a context for the HTML5 Canvas Element, WebGL is available at Khronos. This can be explained by the fact that the specification originally was intended as a simple binding of OpenGL ES2.0 to JavaScript, whereas the Khronos consortium already hosted the OpenGL ES specs.

WebGL is the second context that can be used with the <canvas> element. As said before, it has been based on the OpenGL ES 2.0 specification and provides a JavaScript interface for 3D graphics. The specification has evolved out of an experiment by Mozilla’s Mozilla’s Vladimir Vukicevic. He first demoed the possibilities in his “Web Graphics: Canvas, SVG, and more” talk at XTech 2006, and later announced as the “moz-glweb20? context. Opera published their opera-3d context late 2007, but decided to add abstraction in order to leave the door open for other implementations based on, for example, Direct3D.

WebGL is a specification in which all browser vendors, with the exception of Microsoft, participated. This can be clearly seen by the fact that nightly builds of Firefox, Google Chrome and Safari contained implementations of WebGL. While Opera actively participated in discussions, they have yet to release a public build containing the 3D context. Nokia has announced WebGL support in a new firmware version for their Nokia N900 phone.

Of course, Google hasn’t been silent either. In May they announced the ANGLE project, which basically translated OpenGL calls to their DirectX equivalents. Two weeks later, on April Fools’ this year, Googler Chris Ramsdale announced a WebGL port of the Quake II Game Engine.

No really, Thank You, Microsoft!

Even before the Internet Explorer 9 announcement, Microsoft tried to move the Canvas 2D context to its own module. There was no word about <canvas> in the first two Developer Previews, and the company’s position could best be described as vague. In May, Microsoft Evangelist Giorgio Sardo publically stated that he would like the element to be included, but also added that the company was in no way committed to Canvas.

More recently, at the SVG Working Group meeting earlier this month, Internet Explorer’s General Manager Dean Hachamovitch stated that the team wouldn’t be talking about implementing Canvas at that point. However, he added the following: “all your graphics needs will be taken care of, and I’m smiling broadly.” Today they finally confirmed the suspicion a lot of web developers have been having for months: the 2D canvas has been included in Internet Explorer 9.

Thank you, Microsoft, you’ve just made us smile broadly as well.

7 Responses to “Thank you, Microsoft; HTML5 Canvas is a go!”

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Mark Vice

June 12, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Great post!

Mackenzie Hardridge

June 20, 2010 at 7:49 am

Great read. Thanks for the info!

Husso Nhasyd

June 25, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Web design is an art, I love it. When reading posts like the above, it makes me go back in time and think about when I started. It is amazing how much new concepts over the years. Great post, thanks.

Sharah Minchey

August 11, 2010 at 8:43 am

Regards for this amazing overview, I had no idea that so much was involved in working out the canvas feature. Glad that everything worked out in the end and all the latest versions of the large browsers support it!!

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