HTML5 apps getting better, but what does it mean?

By August 12, 2011Apple, Google

Checking the news this morning over my breakfast I read a post from Fred Wilson about the fantastic HTML5 apps from Amazon/Kindle and Etsy that he saw last week and an article on Techcrunch about Google’s Native Client for Chrome and immediately got to thinking about writing a post about ‘this being a good day for the open web’ or similar.

Following that I forwarded Fred’s post to Jof Arnold of Fitfu because he and I had lunch yesterday and because we have a long running Android vs Apple debate going.  His reply, and the email exchange which followed led me to morph the post to this one, which is more of a general musing on native apps vs HTML 5, Android vs iOS, and app stores vs open web distribution.

So here is what I’m thinking on native apps vs HTML 5 (be warned, this conclusion to the apps vs HTML5 debate is almost becoming a cliche):

  • Consumers don’t care whether it is HTML5 or native, for them it is all about functionality and discoverability
  • Better HTML5 apps are coming all the time
  • But there will always be things you can do in native apps that are difficult or impossible in HTML5 (currently that includes good access to the device’s video, camera and audio)
  • So we will live in a hybrid world where developers use HTML5 when they can and native apps when they want to push the envelope – e.g. in games
  • But as HTML5 grows in power it will take an increasing percentage of apps
  • An increasing number of developers will write apps in HTML5 and then use native code wrappers for packaging and higher features (credit Jof)

The points so far have mostly addressed the question ‘what platform is easiest from a development perspective’.  Equally, if not more, important of course is ‘what platform will give me the best distribution’, which takes us to app stores vs open web and Android vs iOS debates. 

At this point I need to declare a bias.  As regular readers will know I’m pro the open web and have a dislike of Apple’s closed system, and in particular the way they control which apps are allowed into their app store and onto their devices in order to advance their own services, particularly iTunes.

With that out of the way, here is my thinking:

  • The Android platform is still inferior from a user experience perspective but it has two advantages over iOS that I think will make it the winner in the long run:
    1. Cost – it gets on many more devices because it is free (current lawsuits notwithstanding….).  More devices will mean more users, with the twin benefits of improving the underlying OS and attracting more apps.
    2. Open-ness – being able to deploy native code to the device without approval from a third party will become more important as mobiles and tablets become general purpose computing devices
  • Open-ness won’t be as important if consumers remain happy getting apps from an app store – my belief is that as search gets better and HTML5 gets better the restrictions that come with an app store will start to outweigh the benefits, with the 30% house tax being a particularly significant issue.  However, I may be wrong about this, the counter argument that people are getting trained to go to app stores and won’t change may be the right one.  I don’t think so though – the history of the web tells me that once search is good enough people prefer it browsing on portals.

The final caveats to my conclusion that Android and non-app-store distribution will win are that Apple’s advantages in terms of user experience and app store volumes mean that it is still out in front at the moment and, as Jof pointed out in his final email, it is often the better business rather than the better technology that wins, and right now Apple is the best business out there (and to my mild annoyance I’m going to get an iPhone5 next month because the Android phones still aren’t as good).

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