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The Great Web Hope: HTML5 On Mobile Still A Work In Progress

It seems so simple, so obvious: mobile developers of the world, unite behind the web and finally achieve platform independence! It turns out that abandoning an app-focused mobile development world in favor of web technologies based around HTML5 is one of those tech industry ideas that everyone agrees is fantastic yet no one is really sure how to really make it happen.

Software developers packed themselves into The Westin in downtown San Francisco Tuesday for HTML5 Dev Con, which one of the speakers, Peter Lubbers of Kaazing, said was thrown together in a few weeks. Yet it was among the more crowded conferences I’ve ever seen, with developers sitting Indian-style in the aisles of the ballrooms straining to hear more about what many in the mobile industry consider to be the holy grail of mobile software development.

The idea is pretty simple: the mobile renaissance of the past several years has been created largely on the back of native software development, or apps created specifically for iOS and Android. Native applications can interact directly with a phone’s hardware and enable all kinds of nifty tricks, but they force developers to keep up with platform changes and either yoke themselves to Apple’s tight-fisted control of iOS or burden themselves with the fragmentation problems of Android.

The mobile web, on the other hand, promises to be the latest incarnation of the “write once, run anywhere” dragon that the tech industry has been chasing since the mid-1990s and the advent of Java. With all major mobile browsers moving to embrace HTML5 technologies under development by the W3C, the hope is that mobile devices can soon enjoy the same types of web applications that have taken the PC by storm in the Web 2.0 era.

“The third player is maybe the web,” said Michael Abbott, vice president of engineering for Twitter, at the GigaOm Mobilize conference Tuesday morning, in response to a question from GigaOm founder Om Malik about which technology will emerge as the third mobile platform behind iOS and Android. “If you look at what we’re doing with HTML5, and the experiences you can build, we’re really excited about that.”

Mobile publishers at our paidContent Advertising conference earlier this month said they were starting to embrace the mobile web more and more as tablets become popular, in that the larger screen size present on tablets allows developers to create web experiences that are equally as compelling to both users and advertisers.

But just like the hype surrounding mobile payments, it’s pretty clear this embrace of the web is not going to happen in a big way for quite some time.

Lubbers told a packed ballroom Tuesday that “as much promise as HTML5 has, it’s not completely done.” Browser makers are implementing some of the technologies under discussion by the W3C, but until a standard is fully baked the danger of fragmentation lurks in the wings.

And while the mobile Web might be an everyman technology, some developers aspire to more. “If you’re looking for the high end, you really have to go native,” said Santiago Becerra, co-founder and CEO of Mellmo, during Mobilize. Fellow panelist Adam Blum of Rhomobile, a company dedicated to giving developers a way to target multiple platforms with a single effort, agreed: “I don’t think HTML5 will ever offer as much as native platforms.”

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the mobile Web in recent weeks came from the blog of Joe Hewitt, the former Facebook iOS developer who has recently chronicled his frustration with mobile Web development on his Twitter feed. In a blog post last week, Hewitt articulated his frustration:

Let’s face facts: the Web will never be the dominant platform. There will forever be other important platforms competing for users’ time. To thrive, HTML and company need what those other platforms have: a single source repository and a good owner to drive it. A standards body is not suited to perform this role. Browser vendors are innovating in some areas, but they are stalled by the standards process in so many areas that is impossible to create a platform with a coherent, unified vision the way Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has with Cocoa or the way Python has with Guido.

Yet even Hewitt acknowledged in a later post that there is some inherent value in what is being proposed by backers of the mobile Web. The problem is the “potential” albatross, a word thrown around so often with good intentions that only serves to illustrate how futile progress has been to date whatever has been described as having potential.

HTML5 and mobile Web technologies have an easy-to-understand appeal: “They make it simpler to do things you were already probably trying to do,” Lubbers told developers Tuesday.

But the mobile Web seems at least a few years away from reaching its true potential among mainstream developers, despite the efforts of companies like Sony and The Boston Globe to raise the bar.

“HTML5 is early, but we’re full believers that it’s a standard,” said Sean Whiteley, a senior vice president at, at Mobilize. That gives mobile strategists two choices: get out ahead of the crowd now in hopes of establishing a foothold, or save your bullets until we all have a better idea how this notion of mobile development will evolve.

4 Responses to “The Great Web Hope: HTML5 On Mobile Still A Work In Progress”

  1. The reason adoption is slow is that developing rich or complex apps in HTML5 sucks. Disclosure: I’m a long-time HTML/JS and Flash developer. The issues with developing these types of applications in HTML5 are the same that they were years ago. Instead of having developing for a single platform/vendor (Flash, iOS, Java, Android, etc), you are developing towards 3 or more at the same time, one for each major browser. Yes, HTML is a standard, but each browser still handles things differently and this is made exponentially worse with complex, rich media applications. Not only that, but coding in Javascript leaves a lot to be desired for application developers, after using languages like Java, C#, or Flash’s AS3. It’s not anywhere near as robust.

    Example: We built an HTML5 piece for a major client recently. It performs the same or WORSE cpu-wise than Flash (unless hardware acceleration was working), and is rendered differently in each of the 3 top browsers. This is doing simple animation stuff that we could do in Flash 10 years ago. The HTML5 version as took longer to develop and eats more bandwidth, since it was entirely code-based and required a shit load of shims, libraries, and workarounds to even get going. We used all the latest trendy toys, the latest jQuery, Modernizr, etc. The only advantage we are seeing with HTML5 over Flash for that is that it works nicely on iOS. Everything else is not advantageous.

  2. Interesting you don’t mention hybrid apps in your article. Either you’re not aware of the largest growing trend in the development community (not likely) or you’ve conveniently ignored it because it didn’t fit your narrative. Frameworks such as PhoneGap and Sencha have progressed to the point of maturity where their adoption and support has reached a tipping point and gives developers a way for HTML5 apps to take advantage of a majority of phone features not available to pure web apps. Of course you will not have the full breadth of control you get with a native app, but unless you are a gaming developer it will work for your purposes 90% of the time. Also with Google, Apple and MS all putting their collective weight behind this technology we’re going to see things advance rapidly in the next 2 years. Think back through web history and try and remember a time where the biggest players all agreed on a single standard.

    • The only problem with frameworks is that they have their own learning curve and often have to make assumptions about a developers skill set as they balance usability against functionality. Some of them even use a proprietary syntax that not only adds to the complexity but that goes against the main reasons everyone gives for single web standards in the first place: the idea that no one company should control the technology that underlies the web as well as fighting the fragmentation that is a natural offspring of commercial competition.

  3. Great article. I’ve been warning students and colleagues that while they should start learning HTML5 they should take it slow with HTML5 adoption. The only thing I would note is that the quote in the article about it being easier to do things in HTML5 is not entirely true. Some things would seem to be easier but for a full, branded implementation of some even common functionality (i.e., video) it would require all of the main three client side languages, (HTML5, CSS3, and javaScript). So I don’t consider it an ‘everyman’ type of endeavor. Many experienced developers will probably still need a tool or code library to help stay on top of the complexity. For newer developers, say looking to add job skills they can monetize, they will have a harder time with this new web workflow.