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

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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 Salesforce.com, 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.

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