The explosion of the mobile Web has sparked a debate over the best approach for developing applications that give consumers and employees what they have come to expect: access to whatever form of content they want, whenever and wherever they want it.
In fact, 2012 may be remembered as the year HTML5 – the catch-all term used for the latest protocols that define the content, layout, and navigation of Web pages through browsers – took the Internet by storm. Yet concerns surrounding HTML5’s architecture linger, along with a debate concerning the use of native mobile apps versus apps developed for the mobile Web.
Why should anyone care? Because as consumers spend more time on their smartphones surfing the Web, downloading apps, playing games and streaming movies, app creators must determine how best to create richer and more functional experiences across an ever-growing number of device platforms. The wrong choice can result in considerable extra expense, or in users being dissatisfied with poor quality and lack-luster performance.
Compared to previous versions of HTML, HTML5 makes it easier to create feature-rich Web-based applications that can be updated remotely with new functionality without requiring users to download and install an update each time. Generally speaking, HTML5 helps reduce the functionality gap between mobile websites and apps.
By contrast, a native app is installed directly onto the smartphone and can work, in most cases, with no Internet connectivity, depending on the nature of the app. 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.
Some companies are already taking advantage of the HTML5 bandwagon. For example, fashion brand Burberry made news this past fall when it opted for HTML5 to launch a mobile app based on its new watch. The Guardian andFinancial Times newspapers both make compelling use of HTML5 in their mobile applications. And the Apple iPad mobile digital device application for LinkedIn is almost entirely built from HTML5. But native apps have also made headlines with projections that 36 billion native apps will be downloaded worldwide in 2012 – which is an average of nearly 40 apps per smartphone user worldwide over the year.
To be clear, HTML5 has certain limits and shortcomings. The implementation of HTML5 is far from uniform. It varies from browser to browser and from mobile platform to mobile platform. This widespread “technology fragmentation” makes it difficult for software developers to know which part of HTML5 they can use. HTML5 apps can also be afflicted by slowness and often work erratically when a data connection isn’t available or is intermittent.
Other shortcomings of HTML5 in comparison to native applications include the fact that it presently lacks the DRM (Digital Rights Management) needed for many multimedia services, does not support background processing, and is missing secure storage and notifications outside of applications. Finally, HTML5, by itself, does not provide apps with the native look and feel that users may expect. These disappointing aspects of the technology have led some well-known companies to reduce their usage of HTML5.
But one big myth is that HTML5 and native are the only two choices. On the contrary: some of the above shortcomings can be addressed through a hybrid app approach, in which significant parts of an app are written in Web technology, but with aspects of native code in an HTML5 wrapper. 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. Incidentally, industry specialists forecast that by 2015, 80% of all mobile applications developed will be hybrid or mobile-Web-oriented.
Aside from understanding the differences of opinion over the present-day capabilities of HTML5 and associated web technologies, there are four things companies can do:
Beware any promise of any “one size fits all” tool. Mobile apps are too varied, and user expectations keep changing too quickly, for there to be a single tool or development method that works best in all cases.
Good user experience on mobile devices depends upon the design of your back-end business services, as well as the software on the device. Take the time to check that these business services are mobile friendly. The critical path for “mobilizing” a business, whether through apps or a website, usually begins with exposing existing business services via web-friendly interfaces.
Invest in an optimized mobile Web presence today. Consumers are increasingly accessing website through mobile devices – you cannot afford to ignore their experience. Keeping independent mobile and desktop web presences quickly becomes unmaintainable. Assess the level of reuse that makes business sense, looking at opportunities such as responsive design to enable scalable user interfaces.
Use standards-based technologies where they are sufficient for your needs. Continually reassess the state of HTML5-related technologies for this opportunity, because the ecosystem is evolving at a rapid pace.
Bottom line, there are obviously many factors that comprise an enterprise’s mobility strategy. These factors include programmers’ skills, required device functionality, and the importance of security and interoperability. Hybrid apps are an important element enabling enterprises to advance their strategies.
While Web-based applications may never replace native applications, they will retain an edge in business applications that need rapid development. While the app development debate about whether to go native, use HTML5 or employ a hybrid approach continues, IT departments can’t wait for the issue to be settled before deciding on a strategy and setting policies. It’s clear that in the fast- moving mobile world, it’s better to start with what is available now rather than to wait too long and fall behind to a point where you can’t catch up.