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Summary:

Taking a cue from gaming business startup Famo.us has reimagined HTML5 & come up with a new mobile app framework & a new rendering engine that helps HTML5 match the performance of native mobile apps. Famo.us is giving a sneak peek at its technology, hoping to attract developers.

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Did you hear that Facebook, arguably the biggest champion of HTML 5 (a set of web technologies) decided to throw its weight behind native mobile apps instead? So did Steve Newcomb, the co-founder of Berkeley, Calif-based Famo.us, a 17-month-old startup that announced itself at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2012. That didn’t deter him a wee bit, because his company was working on an entirely new approach to developing HTML5 apps and having them work on all sorts of devices including tablets, cars, televisions and smartphones. Since the September announcement, the company has been in quiet mode, but now Famo.us is breaking its silence and today is ready to show off not only elements of its technology but also talk about how much it is going to cost and how developers can access it.

So what’s Famo.us

Famo.us is the brainchild of CEO Newcomb, a co-founder of Powerset, a search-engine company that was acquired by Microsoft and now is part of the Bing. His co-founder is Mark Lu, who is also the head of engineering for the company. The company has only ten employees and has raised about $1.1 million in seed funding from the likes of InterWest Partners, Greylock Partners, CrunchFund, Javelin Venture Partners, Matt Ocko and Barney Pell.

Famo.us has developed technology that makes it easy to write HTML5-based apps and perform like native apps — as long as there is a modern browser and a modern OS, mobile or otherwise. In addition, these HTML5 apps get the added benefits of their web roots; for instance, they can be indexed by Google. Newcomb believes that as more “screens” become prevalent in our lives – PC, tablets, phones, television and the car – developers and companies will need ways to reach their audience through those screens. Today’s model of developing for one platform at a time doesn’t quite scale.

There is no doubt that Famo.us is entering crowded waters and will be jostling for developer attention from other mobile-oriented frameworks such as Sencha Touch, jQuery Mobile and Appcelerator Titanium. Newcomb, however, believes their focus on performance gives them an edge. In order for HTML5 apps to meet the native app experience, the performance needs to be between 40-to-60 frames per second, Newcomb says. They need to be jitter-less and flicker-less. “We built an engine and then a car around it,” he explains, when asked to compare his product with others.

Anthony Wing Kosner, a web-content guru and a blogger for Forbes.com, in an illuminating article about Famo.us put it best when he wrote:

If the original HTML specifications were designed for navigating hierarchies of documents, HTML 5 was designed to enable web pages to be more like applications. But this “more like” has turned out to be a sticky point. Web browsers are still optimized for the display of documents, and applications—apps—are not collections of documents. More properly, apps are dynamically generated views of data that a user can directly manipulate. In a Venn diagram, there is an overlap between web pages and apps—many websites dynamically generate views of document based content—but it is the ways that they differ that have given developers problems. The difference in the amount of interaction between an app, its data and its user is of a high enough order that it is like the difference between different dimensions.

Game on: Apps not documents

Later, when I talked to Newcomb, the Famo.us approach became even more clear. He argues that in today’s world, most mobile browsers are using the WebKit rendering engine and that was developed to display document — it is essentially made up of WebCore and Javascript Core. WebCore renders documents. Famo.us renders apps.

As Kosner says, today’s apps aren’t documents — so Newcomb and Lu decided they were better off writing their own rendering engine, and in doing so, they were taking a cue from the video gaming business. While some video game developers write their own game rendering engine that powers their games, many more try and use game rendering technology developed by other companies to build games. In that sense, Canvas for 2D games and WebGL for 3D games are analogous to Famo.us.

For a developer, nothing much changes: each app developer includes tiny bits of Famo.us specific code in their app. The first time an app is accessed, the Famo.us javascript libraries are downloaded to the client and that’s that. The data comes from a datastore and via JSON goes through the Famo.us rendering engine which in turn taps into the graphic processor unit (GPU) and displays the app on the browser in a manner befitting the screen it is being displayed on.

And now for the news

Newcomb told us that he was surprised by the number of people interested in his technology. A few thousand app developers have already signed up for the service, though it will be a few months before Famo.us is available in beta. The company has introduced a new sandbox so that developers can play around with the technology and some of the key features.

At present the demo will work on any modern computer running Chrome or Safari or Dolphin with keyboard and mouse controls, iPad and iPhone iOS 4.2 to iOS 6, Android phones and tablets with Jelly Bean or Ice Cream Sandwich with Chrome or Dolphin with JetPack. It also works on Samsung SmartTVs 2010 and later.

Many of the capabilities on show should be enough to lure developers, says Newcomb. The plan for the business is to offer Famo.us under a GPL license to non-commercial users — but anyone who has commercial aspirations will need to pay $99 fee for a non-GPS license and will be able to get access to between 10-and-20 templates that can be modified to build apps. Famo.us is currently looking for developers who’d like to build famo.us app templates – which are core design patterns archetypes found in the iOS app store.

Why Famo.us matters

I am of the belief that apps of tomorrow have to be data informed and as such need to be able to take in a lot of information, and render it in a simple and easy to use, touch-oriented manner. So, when Newcomb announced the company and showed his demo at Disrupt, I got quite excited because I believed that they had developed technology that would allow us to solve the vexing problem of a data soaked future.

At Disrupt, Newcomb showed off a periodic table that could be manipulated to call up data behind each element. Now imagine a similar immersive interface that sits in front of Pinterest, eBay or Mr. Porter for a new kind of online store front. Or imagine a brand new way of interacting with Facebook photos and data. You get the drift!

The real opportunity for the company could be working with larger players who desperately need a way to stay relevant in the bi-polar world of Apple and Google. In a time when we are swimming in a sea of mediocre and meh startups, Famo.us clearly has a big, hairy audacious idea. Today it is almost famous. And if things go right – that is, developers sign up – then Famo.us will truly be worthy of its name.

  1. Is’nt that being Flash ? All of it proves that everyone’s dying for having flash but the same people are also under the spell of Mr. Jobs

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    1. Flash is long gone my friend. HTML 5, where it not only provides equally effective web apps for users also saves the battery life of your tablet.
      Flash over-heats your tablet and so is less recommended, on the contrary HTML 5 provides more efficient and SEO-friendly web sites.

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      1. Probably you did not get my point, HTML5 is trying to do the same thing which flash has been doing for years, and because anyway it does not work, how will it even heat the CPU, HTML5 is all promises but no work, probably you guys have developed only sliding animations in jquery, no serious complex animations + synchronized sound work properly in HTML5 browsers, a dedicated player might work but then it would be same as flash player

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    2. “the Famo.us javascript libraries are downloaded to the client and that’s that. The data comes from a datastore and via JSON goes through the Famo.us rendering engine which in turn taps into the graphic processor unit (GPU) and displays the app on the browser” – How does it resemble flash?

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    3. HTML5 is trying to do _some_ of the things flash could do on the surface but with a very very different implementation. Flash was not an open standard. Flash relied solely on Adobe. Flash was buggy, filled with very very serious security vulnerabilities. If your point was to say ‘flash can do some of this’ ok – so what? HTML 5 is an open standard, is implemented in a far better way, and is not filled with the security issues that have plagued flash. Flash is ‘dead’ because it was only a matter of time before the gap they filled between html and more powerful features was clearly closing. But – we could go back to Flash if you’d like – and run on a proprietary technology that is completely closed, and wait for it to come out on your device, and hope an attacker doesn’t take control of your device by simply visiting a web page, and on and on and on.

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    4. s will answer to your doubt very well.
      Have a look and enjoy!!

      http://cinema-series.orange.fr/evenement/universeries/en

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    5. Jobs was proved right as Adobe even killed flash in mobile last year. you are living in 2009.

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    6. The point of contention with Flash was never its capability for doing animations or custom apps/players. It was that it’s an extraneous component with unrestricted access to the system by virtue of being a child of the browser.

      HTML5 can be “like Flash” in that it could be made to do the same Flash did in lots of things. It will never be “like Flash” in the sense that it’s not a 3rd party process that can run amok and disregard all security and CPU control measures imposed in the browser.

      Flash was, effectively, a way to run applications from the browser. The criticism was that these applications were as prone to security and unoptimization defects as normal ones, but by being in the browser layer they had an easier time of screwing up the user experience (not counting that they’re a separate program running as an overlay of the original browser and as such a direct competitor for resources in the mobile devices scheme).

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  2. it is still slow on android deveices

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    1. As an HTML5 developer, I can tell that everything is slow under Android devices.

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      1. Did you try nexus 10?

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      2. When flash is slow, you said it is flash player’s problem.
        When HTML5 is slow, you said it is Android’s problem.
        Funny?

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  3. James GordonGekko Gillmore Monday, November 26, 2012

    Rakesh, brother, sorry you’re just wrong and not informed enough.

    The debate is more than the fact that both flash and famous can do highly animated 3D stuff. The debate is more than just about performance too, which HTML5 wins. The debate isn’t even about Flash being dead because it’s not on iOS devices.

    The debate is about the fact that HTML is an open enough technology–the same open technology that made it possible for Google to index the entire web by analyzing deeply into web pages–something you cannot do with flash. This openness provides the foundation 2 main things:

    1) code-sharing and the proliferation of code libraries like jQuery and ultimately a crowd-sourced coding generation that will lead to exponential progress in technology/coding. In addition, since HTML and javascript can easily be viewed by anyone with a web browser, this context allows for anyone to easily dive into becoming a coder, and even editing the current page they’re looking at. HTML and Javascript is geared towards a future where everyone can contribute and push the collective coding consciousness forward.

    2) deep-linking between sites/apps where ultimately the “web” is true blending of multiple products. It’s not possible to deep link from a page/slide in one native iOS app to another native iOS app (let alone an Android app) without both parties creating custom deep-linking hooks, and then publicizing them.

    Ultimately, it’s complete crap that we can’t make beautiful stuff easily like Famo.us will soon allow us. It’s about time for the future of internet-connected web interfaces to reach this level!

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  4. How is flash dead – last time i checked you could compile native iOS / Android / Air apps with low level access to the GPU on each system. Games leveraging Stage3D work great, and hit the 45-60 fps marks mentioned in this article, and utilize a long tried and tested tool chain.

    Flash Mobile Plugin is dead, while the Adobe Air / Flash runtime is still alive and well . Flash won’t run in browser, but the creators own comments talk about the distinction between working with the DOM vs. Applications. The DOM is not suited for Application Development.

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    1. “Flash is dead” has always meant “Flash in the browser”. Exactly as “Java is dead” has meant for years.

      Even the (in)famous “thought on flash” referred exclusively to the flash plug-in, since that’s the only place there’re bones to pick. It was never flash technology (smartsketch), animation features (futuresplash) or programming (actionscript). The exact same discussion about Flash could be made for Java, Unity and NaCL for Chrome. Flash was the hot topic because it was ubiquous, automatically installed and perceived to be “the web” by many.

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  5. Chris Schoenfeld Monday, November 26, 2012

    If you:

    1. Present a webkit-extension-specific graphics demo and throw it up as indicative of a framework broadly ‘solving HTML5 app performance problems with just the DOM’

    2. Make your actual product a private beta so no one can actually try it

    3. Label the frontmost element in the periodic table ‘Michael Arrington’

    …then the emperor likely has no clothes and needs emergency funding to make payroll.

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  6. Ryan Hollingsworth Monday, November 26, 2012

    Having spent years working in Flash and the past few years dabbling with any and every HTML5 technique I can come across I can tell you all one thing. You’re both correct, and you’re both wrong. Flash and HTML5 (periodic table demo included) skyrocket your CPU usage when doing complex animation. Thus, battery is drained, hence not supported on most mobile devices. HTML5 still has a long way to go to meet where Flash presently is while most HTML5 toys out there simply emulate functionality already mastered in Flash. That being said, flash is not a future compliant technology, it’s not easily indexed by search engines, it handles garbage collection poorly, it has some security concerns. While Flash is insanely awesome, being that it is compiled and will look the same on every browser, it is not responsive or mobile friendly (even if it were mobile compatible) limiting the developer to creating multiple aspect ratios of the same project for each device. With all that in mind, we need to start looking for future solutions to meet our need for mobile, responsive, CPU friendly, SEO compliant technology. To say ‘Flash is dead’ is an statement made out of arrogance or ignorance; however, to say that ‘Flash does not have an expiration date in the very foreseeable future ‘ is also a statement made out of arrogance or ignorance. These guys are aware of this reality, which is why they’ve made this effort to help us all. I respectfully disagree with some of the statements made, but understand why they were – progress requires funding and funding requires confidence that the funded will succeed. I hope they do succeed; i’m tired of settling with HTML5 solutions that are not nearly as capable as their Flash counterparts simply for the sake of being mobile/SEO friendly.

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  7. James GordonGekko Gillmore Monday, November 26, 2012

    This is the beginning of one of the biggest gold rush’s in the web’s history. probably the biggest yet. within a year, every site will be clamoring to have their site redesigned in the new 3D animated swipey famo.us powered style–dare I call it even a “style.”

    The leaders of every single niche will face scrappy competitors making a version of what they already have powered by famo.us, and a massive exchange in power will happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if google and facebook killers emerge out of this. mark my words. you heard it here first.

    Let’s rally to give Steve and Mark all the help they can get to make their product awesome. We need to build a list of the top design idioms to make templates for, and organize around them on github so we’re not all doing the same thing unnecessarily. Here’s a publicly editable spreadsheet to compile this list:

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AoURnKZh8J-SdFBzSGZuTlZjZTdZblhuc3UxZVZ4U2c&pli=1#gid=0

    ps. Meteor.com’s product will also be big. It won’t become big as quickly, but in the long “realtime by default products” will be nearly equal in impact. The mashup of famo.us and meteor to make a globally applicable product will grow to be worth billions quicker than any web application to this date. The person who figures out what that product is will win bigger than the creators of meteor and famo.us combined–because at the end of the day, the product for consumers will make more money than a developer product; and that’s exactly why they called this product “Famous”–because someone is going to become rich and famous making a product on top of it. Ultimately, lots of people will. Well played, Steve! You deserve every penny you’re working to raise right now, and at the highest valuation. Hopefully investors are smart enough to realize this–they’re going to have to be a lot smarter than the investors/judges at Techcrunch Disrupt this fall (check my comments on that techcrunch article). Though it actually doesn’t take that much smarts/experience to get the picture here. Anyway, it’s obvious to us developers. I’d love to be part of what you’re doing in any way possible. You and Marc are ass-kickers. good stuff.

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  8. I’m interested, but anything beyond the basics of HTML and some of the transitions enabled by jquery and javascript don’t seem necessary in 99% of web cases. There is a lot to be said for consistent UI and UI conventions. Animating a bunch of things with cheesy low quality transitions seems generally to be a waste of energy.

    What we really need is a higher quality css and better image technology in the browser. So that we can do more of the things that you can do in a design program in the browser.

    Things like different kinds of color blending modes.

    I want a better HTML/CSS not another divergence in the form of canvas and a bunch of new libraries to support what is essentially another silo of functionality. Functionality that seems great if you are trying to develop games or apps that require more detailed visuals.

    It just seems that in the land of productivity we need more html/css not another set of technological distractions.

    My question is, how does this do anything for your average web application developer that wouldn’t be better done in something like phonegap with primarily html.

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  9. This HTML5 animation web that you proud of is very lagged in my office computer, and it run smoothly at home. Interesting enough, my office computer spec is better than the one at home. A failure of HTML5?

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