It didn’t seem so at the time but not so long ago, developing for the web was actually comparatively simple. Sure there were some significant differences between browsers and some (ahem) got a pretty hard time for lagging behind. But at least there was a pretty finite range of screen sizes and PCs of broadly similar capabilities.

Looking at where we are today – especially in light of all the new toys pouring out of the recent CES exhibition – those not so distant days seem positively quaint.

These days we don’t have to just worry about laptops and desktops but also netbooks and iPods, smartphones and tablets (IOS, Android and Windows) plus internet TVs to name just a few. Some are simply running a classic browser (in various guises), some are more app-focused. And who knows what’ll be next?

Also, the range of stuff we’re developing has never been greater. Native apps, web apps, sites, widgets, desktop apps, SaaS. Even in my own area focused on web development, the choices are bewildering.

Of course, as you’ll very well know, the issues don’t end when you ship. Keeping up to date, fixing the inevitable bugs, and guarding against your work going out of spec as devices, standards and operating systems change is the stuff of nightmares.

This is where HTML5 has the potential to really come into its own. The promise of create once, deploy everywhere is tantalisingly close. It’s not there just yet and it demands compromises (but all development does that). But it’s coming.

I was reading the recent Mobile Web Metrics Report from Netbiscuits which has a whole section on devices’ HTML5 capabilities. The picture is one of HTML5 growing (albeit a little patchily depending on where you live) as a core supported feature of the majority of today’s devices.

For example, the research found that out of the top 10 devices in the US:

Offline Web Application Support is the best supported HTML5 feature with 9 out of the top 10 devices supporting it

Geolocation API and 2D Animation Rendering are both supported by 8 out of 10 devices

Webstorage is supported by 7 out of 10 devices

Sadly, in the UK, we’re not at these levels (or those seen in most of Europe and, of course, across Asia). It’s only a matter of time though.

As I always try to make clear, this isn’t to say native apps are toast. If you’ve got the time and the cash, do both a native app and an HTML5 web app. But, if you want maximum reach across multiple devices, right now HTML5 is a good bet.

Some further reading

Will HTML5 help battle mobile fragmentation in 2012?

How HTML5 Is Aiding in Cross-Platform Development

Is HTML5 Ready for Mobile Cross-Platform App Development?

A good round-up of everything that came out of CES 2012 can be found on The Verge (and on a million other sites and blogs).