Challenge and Potential Behind the HTML5 Hype
In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was candid about both the bet he placed on HTML5, as well as the extent of the losses for making that wager.
Zuckerberg admitted to having drunk the Web technology Kool-Aid, and paid dearly for it, wasting two years developing and deploying apps that offered admittedly terrible user experiences.
The failure was not imagined. Following an outcry from the company’s subscriber base, Facebook dropped browser technology altogether and turned to 100 percent native apps. Zuckerberg revealed that the number of news feed items iOS users are consuming has doubled over levels seen while using the HTML5 apps.
And while HTML5 might not have been right for Facebook, and developers may not be rushing to publish rich 3D games in Web code, the technology might not be entirely a dog without a home. In fact, many believe the best is yet to come.
ABI Research recently found that 32 percent of top iOS apps could be developed by taking advantage of Web code.
Aapo Markkanen, senior analyst for ABI, says the research was designed to fill a couple of analytical gaps surrounding HTML5. First, he says there is a tendency to view HTML5 as a single, monolithic technology, whereas in reality it is a mix of several, interrelated but not necessarily interdependent features. Second, Markkanen says that too many tech evangelists treat app categories uniformly, advocating or dismissing the whole industry’s Web potential based on how HTML5 can be leveraged in a certain niche area.
As part of ABI’s research of the HTML5 market, the firm reviewed close to 600 individual iOS apps one by one and rated their HTML5 feasibility on a four-point scale. With a score of 1 implying a "negligible" feasibility and 4 implying a "strong feasibility", the mean score for all sampled apps was 2.6, with a large degree of variance between categories.
Markkanen says that those apps that had a low feasibility score had a few things in common.
“Many of them relied on a rather complex, seamless user interface. So most mobile games are good examples of apps that wouldn’t work in HTML5. Consumers have very little patience for an interface that doesn't respond seamlessly,” Markkanen says.
Aside from HTML5 being relatively slow compared to a native app, many browsers like Chrome for Android and Safari on iOS vary in the capabilities available to them. For instance, neither Chrome nor Safari mobile browsers allows an app access to a device’s webcam.
"If the use case is very much based on a device sensor, then I think that consumer's patience is quite thin. If you can't deliver the user interface as well as you can on the native side then I think that there's little potential on the Web side," Markkanen says.
That said, Markkanen says HTML5 might be just the right fit for self-service applications that allow users to manage accounts or stream rich media. However, when you get into editing audio or video, he says you’re better off going with a native framework.
Ironically, Markkanen praises HTML5 for exactly the kinds of use cases that Zuckerberg thought he was getting when he went with HTML5 for Facebook’s app—a technology that would allow experimentation at a rapid pace.
"If you're in a stage of app lifecycle where you want to move fast, and you kind of want to throw a lot of stuff out there and see what sticks, then I think Web language is going to come in quite handy," Markkanen says.
Nat Friedman is CEO of Xamarin, which makes a suite of tools that allow developers to write apps in C# and then deploy as native software across platforms. Xamarin is one of many such companies in the business of easing the pain of fragmentation.
Freidman is no fan of HTML5. He approaches app development with respect for both consumer expectations, as well as the inherent differences in the many mobile platforms out there. Xamarin’s tools allow developers to separate their apps into two pieces, a user interface layer and a business logic layer. The business logic layer is what gets sspeak hared from device to device, while the user interface layer is not shared, but rather is tailored to each individual device.
“So an iPad app feels like an iPad app. An Android app look and feels like an Android app. We think that’s the better way to build apps, as opposed to building one user interface that feels awkward everywhere and is strange and jerky and has a 300 millisecond touch delay,” Friedman says. “I think if you don't care about the quality of the user experience, then HTML5 is right for you.”
Friedman references Facebook’s trials with HTML5, as well as Google’s shift to native apps even for iOS devices as proof of what end users want. “I think what we’re seeing is consumer preference for a native experience. It’s just faster, smoother, better,” he says.
When asked whether he thinks HTML5 is a better fit for lighter-weight applications, such as self-service account management, Friedman doesn’t relent. “If you were a bank, and you have a consumer-facing app, I’m wouldn’t want to have a crappy app there. People are switching banks because they can deposit checks by taking pictures of them with their phones.”
Friedman says his company gets a lot of what he calls “refugees” from the HTML5 world, developers that have tried and abandoned write-once Web-based platforms.
Friedman acknowledges the why so much hope has been put into HTML5. He says developers are presented with a “nightmare scenario” where they might want to change one minor thing in there app but then have to make the change across three or four platforms. “The holy grail is one that allows you to tweak an app without doubling or tripling your work,” he says.
By Any Means Necessary
Chris Ruff, President and CEO of UIevolution, a company that creates a cross-platform solution that sits between the end user and the cloud, says his mission is to help his customers reach as many users as they can across as many platforms and technologies as they can, which means he'll use any and all means to get that done.
"Without a standard platform for deploying content, services and applications, it's hard for our enterprise customers to scale up to and reach all the users on all these different devices," Ruff says, noting that the variety of devices has grown to include everything from smartphones to smart televisions to in-dash displays in automobiles.
HTML5 is one part of the equation, but Ruff agrees that it isn't at the point where it can deliver a user experience comparable to what can be had with a native application.
"I think where it breaks down is not HTML5 versus native, but when people try to package HTML5 as native, and the user thinks they're getting native. That's when it falls short," Ruff said.
HTML5 has been championed by many as the ultimate solution to the problem of fragmentation, but Ruff is skeptical that we'll ever see a technology achieve that lofty status. If anything, he says fragmentation is increasing and will continue to do so as long there's innovation on both the software and hardware sides of the business.
"I've been fighting the fragmentation war since its inception, and every time one technology grabs a bunch of market share, then everybody wants to anoint that as the final solution to fragmentation. The reality is that fragmentation is being driven in many ways," Ruff says.
For instance, even the perfect HTML5 app still has to be tweaked and updated multiple times to run neatly across myriad screen sizes, devices and platforms.
Ruff goes on to explain that the roots of fragmentation run deep and the problem has many causes. He says that recent patent spats like the one between Apple and Samsung will result in device manufacturers needing to differentiate even more, resulting in further fragmentation.
"This lawsuit that Apple just won against Samsung is going to cause companies to do more with Windows, and customize their Android experiences more, in an attempt to avoid patent infringement. So that's certainly not going to move us any closer to a one-stop solution" Ruff says.
In the end, Ruff envisions a continual evolution for HTML5, as well as native development, but he sees native remaining the driver for some time to come. "HTML5 will make improvements, but even that will be slow, because every time HTML5 grabs back some capability, the native capability will keep moving as well. So it's never going to be a watershed event unless some of these initiatives like Boot to Gecko take hold and really have an impact."
A Future Platform for HTML5
While HTML5’s limitations are many, it’s definitely not being abandoned. In fact, most believe the technology has a bright future that will be driven by continued innovation in both the software and hardware departments. As device speed improves, networks get faster, and browsers continue to add capability, so too will the user experience improve.
Perhaps one of the biggest things happening in the HTML5 space is Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko operating system. While it’s aimed at emerging markets, the project alone indicates continued investment in the future of the technology.
The company hopes that the project will allow an even higher proportion of the population to enjoy a better smartphone experience at that important $100 price point. “Our goal is not to bring cheaper smartphones to market, it is to deliver a better performance on devices, especially for those who are the low price point end of the devices market,” a Mozilla spokeswoman says.
OEMs are willing to jump. TCL Communication Technology, owner of the Alcatel brand, and ZTE have already committed to building the first handsets to run Firefox OS, and the company expects to announce additional OEM support soon.
Whether this kind of operating system has the potential to push a disruption of the traditional native app store someday isn’t really the point. Rather, Mozilla sees itself as offering an alternative to the current model.
“This is a completely open ecosystem and anybody willing to have an app store in the device is more than welcome to do so, which is different from the current model,” the spokeswoman said.