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HTML5: Not for Phone Apps?

The latest version of Hypertext Markup Language offers rich functionality without requiring the assistance of third-party plug-ins. This capability should make it perfect for generic web applications that work on any mobile platform. The reality falls short of this ideal.

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By: Terri Wells
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October 16, 2012

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The latest version of Hypertext Markup Language offers rich functionality without requiring the assistance of third-party plug-ins. This capability should make it perfect for generic web applications that work on any mobile platform. The reality falls short of this ideal.

The problem is that mobile applications built with HTML5 do not offer the same level of performance as applications built for a specific platform. This explains why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated publicly that his company's attempt to create HTML 5 apps instead of native apps for mobile platforms for the social site was the firm's biggest mistake.

Unfortunately, this leaves many developers in a bad position when trying to build an all-inclusive web-based mobile app. There's Apple's iPhone, Droid phones, Samsung's Galaxy, and others. If you want an app that runs well on all three platforms, will you need to build your application three times, once for each platform? And if so, what does that say about the future of HTML5?

Serene Chan, industry analyst for ICT, Asia Pacific at Frost & Sullivan sees reason to be hopeful. She recently told ZDNet that it was too early to decide whether HTML5 was a success or failure. “Just because Facebook [says it] will go back to native apps is not indicative that HTML 5 is doing badly. The Facebook app contains HTML 5 in areas where the company wants flexibility in making modifications quickly,” she noted.

Still, phone apps do not seem to be the way forward for HTML 5. According to Vishal Jain, mobile services analyst at 451 Research, "Feature phones and HTML 5 do not go hand in hand." Still, its usage could grow in other areas where its performance won't compare unfavorably with what is already available, such as graphics rendering, Web services protocol, and server-side programming. Jain explains this by pointing out that HTML 5 is a combination of technologies that can be deployed in isolation. So while applications built in HTML 5 appear to deliver poor performances when compared to those built natively, the markup language is versatile enough to be used for many other tasks.

Why does HTML 5 apparently work so poorly for mobile apps? According to Jain, the latest features of the language need a better-performing chipset than one typically finds in feature phones; an improved chipset would raise the price of the device. It's easy to imagine the reaction from manufacturers and consumers to higher prices, especially since a properly-supported HTML 5 app won't feel very different from a native app to the user of a feature phone. Besides, users of feature phones do not typically use many apps, so to developers, there seems to be little point in creating HTML 5 apps for this market.

Still, a number of companies are trying to improve HTML 5's performance and enhance its spread. Mozilla, for example, is using HTML 5 in the design of its own mobile operating system for smartphones; its applications will of course be built in HTML 5. Plans call for Mozilla's Firefox OS to run on cheap handsets in markets where Apple iOS and Google Android-based smartphones are beyond the budget of most users. This move could be good for the future of HTML 5.

There are some, though, who seem to think HTML 5 should look to HTML's past to achieve a solid future. One comment left on the ZDNet article mentioned above stated bluntly that “HTML should be left for content, not functionality. That's what it was designed for before the dropout-boys came along and turned it into a mess.” What the comment writer seems not to see is that the nature of content itself has changed; it's much more interactive. Yes, you still see plenty of examples of simple text on a page (such as this article) or static images, but attracting visitors now means giving them something to do: a game to play, a quiz to take, a calculator to use, videos to click on, and so forth. The line between content and “functionality” is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be – and it will continue to blur. This is why HTML 5, or something very like it, will gradually see greater adoption in the months and years to come.

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