One of the latest tech buzzwords given wings by the success of the iPhone and iPad is HTML5. Apple has pitched this up-and-coming iteration of the web’s main building block as everything from an alternative App Store platform to the Flash-less future of multimedia on the Internet. But what exactly is HTML5, and what are its real world benefits to average users like you and me?

HTML, Hyper Text Markup Language, is the fundamental blueprint of all websites. When you visit a site, you see pages with text, photos, videos and games. But your browser displays all that stuff because it downloaded a big chunk of HTML code that instructs it where to access that media and how to lay it out on a virtual page.

Web designers can build websites using everything from powerful tools like Dreamweaver and Coda to plain ol’ TextEdit. In the end though, the blueprint is still just a bunch of HTML text instructions for placing this picture over here and that chunk of text over there. HTML is an open standard, which means that (for better or worse) no single party controls it. And browser makers like Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera and Google can support its various layout and content display features as thoroughly, or not, as they choose.

Upgrade from HTML 4

HTML5 is not new, it began life in 2004 as a seedling specification called Web Applications 1.0, from the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), a loose affiliation of browser manufacturers and others interested in browser technology. Since then, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the primary web standards organisation with more than 300 members including Apple, Hitachi, Real Networks, Google, Opera, and Microsoft has lent a hand to fleshing out new specifications and features.

HTML5 is not ushering in a new era of the web by itself. Many of the new features and fundamental changes are powered by accompanying technologies, such as CSS3 (the latest version of Cascading Style Sheets, the technology that lets web designers control the layout and style of a page) and JavaScript, technology that powers special effects and interactivity on web pages. So to keep this discussion simple, let’s stick with using HTML5 as an umbrella for these symbiotic technologies.

HTML5 covers a lot of ground when it comes to new features and better accessibility. Cool things like Gmail’s ability to work and store email offline, geolocation features that automatically find where you are and drag-and-drop moving of simulated windows and widgets in your browser are all part of HTML5. Also included are new ways to make web pages more accessible to things like screen readers for the blind, editing documents within browsers with Zoho Docs and Google Docs, and even dropping files from your desktop onto a web page to upload them.

By standardising the implementation of these features, browser makers have a much easier time building them into their apps. That means you can enjoy a more uniform, intuitive experience on the web no matter which browser you use.