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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  • One of the most balanced common sense views on the subject that I’ve read so far. But when it comes down to it, this is about control of a marketplace and the jury is still out whether native (proprietary) or HTML5 (open standards). Whatever, I’m enjoying how this battle is driving the market forwards!

  • Tom Hume

    Nic, this is a sensible summary but there’s a few assumptions in here that I think are worth challenging:

    – HTML5 is capable of delivering user interfaces as good as native; whilst browsers get better, will they keep pace with improvements in the rest of the handset UI?
    – HTML is well-understood and easily authored. Writing an HTML5 web app is quite a different thing and involves learning a stack of technologies and workarounds which are arguably as complex as any native development.
    – Some mobile OSs (e.g. WP7) are quite different to the sorts of things one renders in a browser – so there’ll be a clear difference for users between apps and web-apps.
    – You talk about search being associated with the web and not app-stores; I’m not sure that follows. Most of my interactions with an app store are through its search facility. Does a user care whether they’re searching an app store or the web, to find an app?

  • Tks Tom. The more one gets into the detail on this issue the messier it gets.
    Re search – you are right that the search box is important on the app store, and to be honest I hadn’t thought enough about that, but I think there is at least some difference between searching a directory from that directory using the search engine they force on you and true open search.
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  • Tom Hume

    I’m not sure I understand “true open search” and its benefits in this case. I’m already used to using google to trawl through swathes of content, gmail search to search my email, calendar search to search my calendar, and Facebook to find friends. Apps are, and could remain, just one more silo, and a convenient one for the end-user given that their content is opaque to search crawlers.

  • I think you are downplaying the largest app market in this analysis, which is the games market. At both GamesBeat and Casual Connect, the HTML5 question came up. VCs thought it was the next big thing, but actual game developers (and a couple of general app developers like Square’s Keith Rabois) were very dismissive. Given that games are the largest and most profitable sector of the app market (18 of the top 20 iOS grossing apps today are games), I don’t see how HTML5 will be that disruptive, because as you acknowledge it’s clearly an inferior solution for all but the very simplest games. It’s certainly not clear how HTML5 will disrupt the app ecosystem if more than half the revenue is still coming from native games downloaded from app stores. It’s going to be very tough to break that consumer behavior.

    I also note that, Fred’s post aside, most of the HTML5 demo’s I see are done in a PC browser, not on mobile. I’ve yet to to see a compelling HTML5 game that runs on an iPhone. My definition of compelling includes sound, and does not include retro-style titles.

  • Games are a little different to other apps because they constantly push the boundaries of what a platform is capable of delivering, making them less suitable for HTML5. That said, I know EA and others see a lot of potential in this area.
    You make a good point re the revenues of games.

    Tks for the comment.

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  • I guess the question is whether we will be better served if native apps are in a separate silo to web apps. My hunch is not, but then I don’t like silos ☺

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  • To me HTML5 is better for any app which do not require (as a must, not just a nice to have) a feature that can be obtained exclusively via a native app. For one reason above any other, reach and cost of development/maintenance. But I ain’t no developer, so any dev willing to challenge the above is more than welcome!

  • I think that about sums it up Fabio

  • The corporate perspective is interesting. Tks Dharmash.

  • I saw those videos a little while back. Tks for reminding me. Very cool. I think I posted about them at the time.

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