Will 1B HTML5 phones change the mobile app economy?

Mobile apps for specific smartphone platforms continue to sell well, but the app economy could be influenced by the sale of HTML5-capable phones. Research firm Strategy Analytics predicts sales of one billion HTML5 phones in 2013, compared to an estimated 336 million this year. While the most popular smartphone — Apple’s(s aapl) iPhone — is a top seller, it pales in comparison to this figure.

Many of today’s mobile apps for Apple iOS and Google Android(s goog) are partially built with web standards such as HTML5: the code used to power many websites today. Often the HTML5 code is used for presentation in a mobile app — how it looks — but is then wrapped together by a platform’s native operating system code. This approach allows the application to access low-level device-specific functionality such as the camera, GPS radio or storage memory, for example.

The choice between apps that run only on certain devices or a wider number of them doesn’t have to be an either-or solution for mobile developers. In fact, it’s generally not, according to Rhomobile’s CEO, Adam Blum. Speaking at our recent Mobilize event, Blum suggested the hybrid approach of wrapping HTML5 code with native software is what many are doing today. It makes sense, because the HTML5 specification is still maturing and isn’t as feature-complete as iOS’s or Android’s software development platforms.

But the key point is that HTML5 is coming closer to feature parity with these platforms, and it’s doing so at a time where more phones are shipping with HTML5 support. Clearly, developers will best support a platform when it has excellent development tools and a growing or popular user base. One look at the cumulative iOS app sales is a great indicator of that.

From a consumer standpoint, the idea of mobile apps relying heavily on HTML5 — as far-fetched as it may seem — is very desirable. Why? Application lock-in essentially becomes an issue of the past, as does fragmentation; at least from a mobile app standpoint. I’m tired of buying the same apps over and over when I switch devices or platforms. HTML5 apps can help eliminate that problem and let me use whatever device I want and run the same apps regardless of the operating system.

As HTML5 gains functionality, and an overall larger userbase, could today’s native apps simply be a stepping stone to pure HTML5 software in the future? The device-neutral platform may be the best way to code one mobile app and have it run across tens of millions of devices across various mobile operating systems: Windows Phone(s msft), iOS, Android and others.