There has been a lively debate lately about the implications of the emerging HTML5 web standard for mobile applications, with questions raised as to whether or not HTML5-based mobile apps will supplant “native” mobile apps in the various mobile marketplaces.
One of the key goals of HTML5-based mobile apps is to enable developers to create web-based mobile apps that mirror native mobile apps in terms of performance, functionality and polish. These web-based apps would presumably be compatible with the entire mobile operating system (OS) ecosystem, and would therefore solve the “mobile fragmentation” issue that currently forces developers to develop native apps for each individual mobile OS and sell through OS-specific app stores.
To properly address this issue, we must look at it from the perspective of the core affected communities: mobile OS and web browser providers, developers, end users and mobile network operators. A mix of technology and business interests – which are not commonly shared across the mobile value chain – will continue to dictate the evolution of the mobile app market.
HTML5 and the Major Mobile OS and Web Browser Providers
Google, with its Android OS and Chrome browser, Apple, with its iOS OS and Safari browser, and Microsoft, with its Windows OS and Internet Explorer browser, have significant business interests aligned with both HTML5 and native mobile apps, and will nurture both approaches to exploit current and downstream product and service opportunities for as long as their interests are served.
While these companies will ultimately embrace HTML5 via their respective web browsers once the standard has matured, these companies have a strong interest in cultivating their own respective mobile operating systems and ecosystems. So it can be argued that the allure of HTML5 as a “write once, deploy everywhere” cure-all doesn’t appeal to these companies in the realm of mobile apps. Native apps served to consumers via proprietary app stores have proven very lucrative – for Apple especially – and afford these companies tremendous control over their respective mobile ecosystems. They are in no hurry to walk away from this model.
It’s also important to note that for these companies, the success of their mobile initiatives rises and falls on the quality of the user experience. Positive user experiences are extremely important, which is one of the reasons why these companies – save Google – screen the apps that are available via their branded app stores. Quality control is easier to manage in a “closed” app store ecosystem populated with high quality native apps.
For these reasons, it is advantageous for Google, Apple and Microsoft to continue nurturing the development of native mobile apps. Advantage: native apps.
HTML5 and the Mobile Developer Community
Mobile developers have watched the evolution of HTML5 with great interest, primarily due to HTML5’s perceived promise to deliver the “write once, deploy everywhere” holy grail. But the reality is that native app performance and functionality is much better than that of HTML5-based apps today.
There are a lot of mobile capabilities that HTML5 simply cannot support currently, such as native Digital Rights Management (DRM), easy in-app payment processing, and the ability to interface with onboard cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes, etc. Apps that rely heavily on handset features are extremely difficult – often impossible – to reproduce via HTML5 today, and the abstractions and workarounds required to refine HTML5-based mobile apps negatively impact overall app performance. In the realm of mobile apps, HTML5 is inherently “lowest common denominator” technology, insofar as it must ensure cross-browser interoperability and uniform user experiences for every class of device.
But the more pressing issue for developers is that they need to sell their apps. Distribution and discoverability are critical factors here. Developers’ apps need to be easily discoverable by users, and centralized app stores provide the necessary marketing power and reach to ensure this. So there is significant financial incentive for developers to produce native apps for distribution via proprietary app stores, especially when you consider that most web-based apps today are advertisement supported, offering significantly less revenue potential than paid-for apps.
For these reasons, and in the absence of a defined HTML5 testing environment, which isn’t expected until at least 2014 – HTML5 is essentially beta until then – developers will continue to gravitate to native app development. Advantage: native apps.
HTML5 and End Users
Research has shown that only a small subset of mobile device users are “power users,” with the desire and patience to go out-of-ecosystem to obtain their apps (and manually supply their credit card information). The majority of mobile users will continue to gravitate to native apps sold in centralized app stores, for ease of discovery, authentication, “one touch” payment and installation.
Most importantly, end users expect top notch app functionality, performance and ease of use. Anything less is simply unacceptable. For the foreseeable future, the aforementioned HTML5 shortcomings will limit the appeal of HTML5-based apps for the average end user. Advantage: native apps.
HTML5 and Mobile Network Operators
“Mobile fragmentation” presents a daunting challenge to mobile network operators seeking to expand their presence in the high-value mobile application marketplace, where they need to insert themselves or risk further marginalization as “dumb pipe” providers. Network operators need to offer high-value, differentiating apps and services directly to subscribers across the full device portfolio.
But while full device portfolio coverage is the end goal for operator-provided apps, operators can’t pursue this goal at the expense of differentiation from other operators. HTML5 web-based apps that could conceivably run on any mobile network are a “differentiation killer” for operators. Operators need to find another way to achieve universal app and OS support across their respective device portfolios. Advantage: native apps.
Where HTML5 Could Gain Mobile App Traction in the Short Term
Large, established, subscription-based content providers (example: the Financial Times) and community-based platforms (example: Facebook) that aren’t revenue dependent on specific OSs or browsers could benefit with HTML5. HTML5 enables them to develop once and deploy everywhere, maintain a direct relationship with their customers/users, and avoid restrictions and revenue “taxes” imposed by today’s app store curators (namely Apple).
But these HTML5-based apps will be significantly limited in functionality and interactivity in the foreseeable future, and only vendors with major mindshare/market share are positioned to gain traction with HTML5 outside of an app store ecosystem. Smaller, lesser known app providers and vendors will continue to depend on app stores to ensure ease of discovery and distribution.
The Victor: Native Apps
With this assessment, we believe that HTML5, while showing promise for the mobile app ecosystem, comes up short in many significant ways and will not displace native apps for mobile app supremacy anytime soon. HTML5 will, of course, eventually supplant the current HTML framework on the web, as this is what it is specifically designed to do. For the foreseeable future, however, HTML5 will not gain significant traction in the mobile ecosystem.
Max Bluvband is the founder and CEO of Silent Communication, provider of Device and Network Agnostic (DANA) mobile client solutions.