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Revisiting the HTML5 vs. Native Debate


HTML5's rapid progress as a platform means that developers, particularly mobile application developers, need to revisit earlier decisions. Should they create applications natively or take advantage of the ability to “write once, run everywhere”? The answer isn't as simple as it may have been even just one year ago.

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By: Terri Wells
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January 29, 2013

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HTML5's rapid progress as a platform means that developers, particularly mobile application developers, need to revisit earlier decisions. Should they create applications natively or take advantage of the ability to “write once, run everywhere”? The answer isn't as simple as it may have been even just one year ago.

We've examined this question before. And we've all heard the complaints: HTML5-based applications can be sluggish and don't blend in with the right “look” on various platforms. Producing native applications, on the other hand, can be costly when you count up the number of different platforms on which your application might be used. It's a classic catch-22. Or is it?

Aidan Quilligan, managing director of Accenture Mobility, wrote an insightful piece for Forbes that examines the complexities of choosing between HTML5 and going native for writing your mobile applications. The most important issue, as he observed, is choosing a platform that will give consumers “what they have come to expect: access to whatever form of content they want, whenever and wherever they want it.”

In that situation, both HTML5 and native-written applications can fall short. If you're in an area with intermittent Internet access, an HTML5 application won't work well – if at all. Likewise, if your potential customer uses a platform for which you haven't built your application, he or she is out of luck. What's a developer to do?

To me, the key seems to be keeping in mind what you want  your app to do, how your customers will use it, and what strengths and weaknesses HTML5 and native-written applications bring to the table. If your application needs to be connected to the Internet to function properly, HTML5 might be the way to go. But you'll need to keep in mind that not all platforms support HTML5 equally. Quilligan notes other HTML5 shortcomings: it currently lacks the Digital Rights Management necessary for many multimedia services; doesn't support background processing; and doesn't offer secure storage and notifications when the user is not in an application. Additionally, if the user expects an HTML5 application to look like, for example, a native iPhone application, he or she will be sorely disappointed.

Native applications, of course, bring their own shortcomings to the table. “Compared with an HTML5 mobile app, which can be developed once and run on many different platforms, a native app approach can be significantly more expensive, since these apps must be developed platform-by-platform,” Quilligan notes. If you're a small-time app developer, you probably can't afford to take the time (or spend the money on emulators and such) to develop for everything – or even just for the major platforms.

Fortunately, there's a third path. Quilligan talks about a hybrid app approach. The idea is to write major parts of an app using HTML5, but include native code. “Developers can add layers of re-usable HTML5 to run on top of native code in order to take advantage of each platform's best features,” he explained. One can expect that such an approach would be less expensive and time-consuming than rewriting an entire application for every platform (if more expensive than just writing it once in HTML5), but still give you some of the advantages of the fully native solution.

Even with this approach, you can't escape the considerations I mentioned earlier: namely, weighing what you want your application to do, how your customers will use it, and the strengths and weaknesses of HTML5 and native applications for realizing your vision. But a hybrid approach gives you another possible way of meeting your customers' expectations – a welcome option indeed in a technology world where the landscape is constantly changing and customers are becoming more demanding all the time.   


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