Analysis: when will HTML5 deliver on its promise?

After Facebook’s botched IPO, CEO Mark Zuckerburg said the company’s “biggest mistake” was “betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native because it just wasn’t there,” before declaring that a native iOS app had already doubled Facebook’s user base.

These words chimed with a growing disregard in the industry for the fifth iteration of Tim Berners-Lee’s internet lingo. Zuckerburg was right to a point; going native can work wonders for an app such as Facebook’s that has separate, platform-specific user bases.

But companies that specialise in multiplatform coding solutions remain convinced that HTML5 has huge potential.

“There’s huge hype around HTML5 right now, and for good reason,” says David Akka, managing director of Magic Software.

“A lot of companies, especially outsourcers, will take any application and convert it to any format for you. But that’s not really the point of what HTML5 is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be one service that works across every platform. But it doesn’t really deliver on that yet.”

Compliance, believes Akka, is both a strength and weakness when it comes to unlocking HTML5’s potential, especially across mobile platforms. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is struggling to keep developers to a standard at a time when platform fragmentation is tearing compatibility apart. In recent weeks, it has delayed the requested deadline for its standards until late 2014.

“Even in the latest Android 4.2, there is still inconsistency with the W3C standard,” says Akka. “For the vendors, it’s very good to be different, but also it’s good to meet the standard. I think Microsoft demonstrated very well with HTML4 that compliance is a benefit when you capture your developers into an established framework.”

But, suggests Akka, Microsoft’s current strategy could be helping to hold back HTML5. “Microsoft, because they’re late to the [tablet] market, came up with the HTML5 solution,” says Akka. “So rather than letting developers fall into the iOS or Android paradigms, they tried to discuss a generic standard.”

Akka seems to be implying that Microsoft’s support for HTML5 is not a genuine attempt to encourage platform agnosticism, but simply an attempt to continue a family line in the face of overwhelming support for the split iOS and Android model.

But Akka sees Android in particular as squandering its share of the market.

“The majority of Android mobile phones are still version 2.2,” he says. “But because of the promise of Android, it’s not like iOS, where it’s at the top of the market and people replace it every year; people use them as ‘dumb phones’ and don’t need to upgrade. If Twitter can run on it, why care about other things?”

It’s a worrying picture of a further fragmentation of an already fragmented platform. And, says Akka, HTML5’s heritage as an asynchronous technology based on a request-and-deliver system that severs the connection with every request, makes it ill-suited in principle to mobile platforms still running low-bandwidth and unreliable 3G connections.

“Although we believe that once we move to a faster network like 4G, and when the hardware in the middle is upgraded, say in three, four or five years’ time, the problem will be less significant,” says Akka. “But for organisations to have to wait that long to use HTML is a bit absurd at this point.”

Steve Levy, CEO of Verivo Software, posits a more balanced argument.

“Think how long Microsoft Office installed on the desktop as an application has been successful,” says Levy. “Are there web-based versions of it? Sure. But did this take over desktop versions? No. There’ll always be a place for native and web, or HTML5-based applications.”

Levy adds that he’s spoken to Facebook team members who acknowledge that, while native apps are a good idea for the social network, “users will also need a great HTML5 application for everybody who can’t go native”.

“But the native [version] will always be slightly better -will always have some feature that’s not caught up by the browser-based stuff,” says Levy.

Unlike Akka, Levy believes that HTML5 already has plenty to offer. The trick is to think outside the smartphone box.

“[HTML5] can get to a much wider range of device types – even feature phones,” says Levy. “You can get to cameras in that hardware, even. HTML5 apps do require a lot of work in porting, but probably not as much work as writing it from scratch. And people in HTML5 are working constantly to reduce that effort.”

As for the W3C’s delayed standardisation process, Levy is pretty relaxed. “My observation is, very little hinges on [the date],” he says. “I don’t believe many organisations are waiting to use things only in the standard. It is simply following innovation, and trying to make it testable.

“You can use that if what you’re trying to build doesn’t need to take advantage of the latest innovations,” says Levy, “but then it’s going to be very mundane and rote.”

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