Mobile HTML5 and the Race to App Ubiquity

HTML5 Pros

Mobile HTML5, and the Race to App Ubiquity

For the uninitiated, you may have heard rumblings over the last year or so about this thing called “HTML5” app development. This wonky discussion is getting even more heated up recently and while it seems like a topic best suited to Stack Overflow chat rooms or WebMonkey, the fact is that this development trend will likely have a direct impact on everyday app users. In fact, many pedestrian smartphone users are likely interacting with HTML5 apps and don’t even know it.

HTML5 – What the hell is it?

Ok, according to Wikipedia:

“HTML5 is a markup language for structuring and presenting content for the World Wide Web and a core technology of the Internet. It is the fifth revision of the HTML standard (created in 1990 and standardized as HTML4 as of 1997)[2] and, as of December 2012, is a W3C Candidate Recommendation.[3] Its core aims have been to improve the language with support for the latest multimedia while keeping it easily readable by humans and consistently understood by computers and devices (web browsers, parsers, etc.).”

For those of you who are still scratching your heads, here’s a more pedestrian definition from Mediascope’s blog page:

“HTML stands for “Hyper Text Markup Language” which is geek-speak for “a set of rules that tell computers how to interpret code to display websites.”(seriously, there are literal sets of rules) HTML5 is the 5th version of these rules, and brings major upgrades to the capabilities of websites. To oversimplify the explanation, HTML5 is a convergence of several technologies currently used to make websites interactive.”

So, what is the big deal here? you may be asking. Well, simply put, this new development standard allows mobile apps to be built essentially as websites instead of downloadable applications. Right now, if you are, say, an iPhone user, and wanted to check out a new app you just read about, you would as, per usual, go to the Apple App Store, perform a search, find the desired app, and then download it from the store to your phone. This process literally places a packet of code directly into brain of your phone –which, depending of the functionality of the app – is powered by the device itself and runs “natively” on your phone, in many cases whether you are on the internet or not (again, depending on the app – for example, many game apps run independent of the internet – which is why we see so many people playing mobile games on their phones when down in the subway). What HTML5 development standards offer is a “bypass” of this process, by allowing web-based “apps” to run over the internet via the mobile web browser (in the case of iPhone, this is the default Safari browser). This emerging platform makes for some very provocative implications for users, app developers and the big OS giants (namely Google and Apple – and also Microsoft and Blackberry).

As the sophistication of HTML5 development matures, app developers will be able to build and deploy applications without having the deal with the toll booth and inspection process that Apple and Google (to a lesser degree) impose on apps before they are deemed consumer worthy. So, to provide some context for the reader, imagine a future where there is no longer an “app store” any more. Simply mobile internet-based links that allow anyone on any device to immediately gain access to app experiences via the web. No such thing as iPhone apps, or Android apps, or Blackberry apps or Microsoft apps or Whatever apps. These distinctions would disappear, and one web-based development initiative would be compatible to any smartphone user. Seems interesting no? Well in some ways that future is already here. In a number of instances for some apps, this deployment and development strategy is already being utilized. Take for example, YouTube. A totally HTML5-based mobile site. It looks like an app on your phone – but the YouTube icon on your smartphone is really just a “Bookmark” link to the mobile website. Netflix also utilizes this same development and deployment strategy. There are many other examples in the mobile webisphere that you can check out here:

Pretty cool. So, why is this not more the norm?

Good question. And this is where it gets complicated. Basically the big debate about HTML5 development came to a head when back in 2011, Zuckerberg finally released a NON- HTML5 version of the Facebook app. Yup. Facebook was from the outset, an HTML5 app. And it sucked. You remember how awful it was? How it crashed all of the time, and didn’t load, and never seemed to work and was a slow, cruddy mess? Well, it was because the visionaries at FB decided that an HTML5 deployment – for all of the reason above – was the way to go for its huge user base. And it was a good idea, frankly. A bit ahead of its time, but a good idea. In order to save face (pardon the pun) for years, Zuck tried to fix and mend and tweak the app to improve it – claiming that soon the HTML5 development standard would mature at the right pace and meet the needs of his development team. But it didn’t happen. So, in 2011, FB released a brand new “native” FB app – and the improvement was immediate. So, that brings us to the answer to the question, what is this not the norm? Because for all of the promises and opportunities that HTML5 development offers, its still a lousy experience for most of the more complex applications we use everyday. Here’s why:
1) The mobile internet, well, sucks. Lets face it. The mobile internet, while an incredible and earth-changing technology, has not kept pace with the way that we want to use it. Its unreliable, its patchy, its fragmented, and its frustrating. At least in the Western part of the world (Asia is light years ahead of us on this – but that’s for another post). So, running sophisticated, high-interactivity apps over the mobile web is a risky proposition. That’s what Facebook experienced. Hence, only specific types of apps are appropriate for HTML5 deployment – and those are the ones that best suit the platform (low interactivity, “thin” content). Banking apps, and shopping apps, as examples, are too information-heavy for a web-based experience, so these and others like this, are typically built in native format.
2) HTML5 is just not there yet. It’s still a nascent technology. The code standards are still fragmented. Development cycles don’t ubiquitously translate across all mobile operating systems (apps built this way still need some moderate “tweaking” per OS to ensure that they work across all devices and OS versions), and there is a great deal of disagreement among the community as to what will become standard and what is still open to interpretation. So most of these apps are skunkworks initiatives (other than the YouTube’s and Netflix’s of the world) or labors of love.
3) The Platforms Are Not Supportive – As you can imagine, the core players, Apple, Google and Microsoft, are very threatened by this development (Apple has the most to lose, frankly). They RELY on the platform ubiquity that keeps their users tethered to their devices. The App Store deployment strategy offers Apple a closed-gate environment where they can play traffic cop and gatekeeper to both the app developer community (who must comply with Apple’s strict app development standards) and the Apple device users like you and me who must go through Apple’s store to buy apps (and music and movies and books and magazines and soon clothes, devices, food, and who-the-hell-knows-what). So, as you can clearly see, allowing consumers to have access to all of this great stuff via the internet is a huge threat to their entire toll booth business model. Word on the street is that Apple sees the inevitability of this coming wave, and is simply going to develop some other standard or gate to maintain its hold – and I wouldn’t count them out. They are good at this sort of thing. But lets just say that the immaturity and unreliability of HTML5 at the moment is not something that Apple is weeping over.
4) App Developers are divided While it seems to make for a boon to app developers to remove the shackles and deploy apps via the internet, the fact is it’s a mixed bag. Many app developers have spent years putting together their native app development capabilities and processes. And they make good money being a good citizen to Apple. And they like it this way. Others are clamoring for the day that the technology and maturity develops so they can get around the gate and start a direct to consumer business. So there is some polarity in the developer community which hampers R&D.

Summation: Keep looking
So, in short, its clear that the HTML5 development debate will only get louder and louder in 2013 as more and more of these type of engagements make it to the web and are successful. A few interesting development are occurring in the developing world. According the Business Insider’s Mobile Intelligencer:

• Gree, the Japanese social mobile gaming giant, has built an HTML5 platform to speed adoption of its games in the 169 countries where it’s already present.
• Telefónica has 175 million mobile customers across Latin America, as well as an investment in Chinese carrier Unicom. Telefónica wants to push HTML5 not just for mobile development, but also as an operating system via theFirefox mobile platform.
• Chinese manufacturer ZTE has also signed on to carry handsets powered by the Firefox mobile OS, in a bid to reduce dependency on Android.

And it looks like Mozilla is now creating a new mobile operating system based on Firefox that is supposed to launch this year – which is based entirely on HTML5. These kind of developments will only push forward acceptance and standardization of HTML5 development – and US based operators are going to take notice and see a new business opportunity in there. So, dear users, your apps may take a different turn in the coming year. Happy Apping.

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