Developers flock to HTML5 as over 1B compatible handsets are expected to sell in 2013

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HTML5 has rapidly gained traction in the mobile application ecosystem. Most new smartphone browsers support it, most mobile developers are already using the language to build web-based applications and operators such as AT&T Mobility have begun promoting it as a means of streamlining app development and expanding market reach for mobile software products.

The evolution to HTML5-based apps is still in an early stage, however, and today's HTML5 implementations do not yet represent the technology's ideal. But HTML5 is here to stay, and analysts have positive expectations for it.  

"HTML is not a pipe dream," said Adam Leach, principal analyst and practice leader for the devices and platforms practice at Ovum. "It does deliver benefits from both technology and business perspectives."

There are, or course, still many reasons to work on native platforms. Native apps can leverage the components available in the device like cameras and sensors, showcase graphics and operate without an Internet connection. Developers can distribute native apps through app stores, and even though there can be platform-specific requirements, fees and fierce competition, the business model is a familiar one and customers are accustomed to it.

HTML5 allows developers to use familiar web tools for application development. It reduces the need to tailor apps for different platforms, makes it more convenient to update applications and allows companies to choose how their apps are distributed and monetized. Right now, HTML5 doesn't offer access to device components and the need for an online connection means HTML5 apps can consume more bandwidth. But the approach is expected to gain capabilities and attributes as it matures.

Development cost is another advantage for HTML5. Each time a web app is ported to a device or form factor, a company must budget about 20 percent to 25 percent of the initial development costs for the new version, according to a recent report from Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst at Forrester Research. Porting native apps is much more expensive, costing about 50 percent to 70 percent of the cost of an original application for each adaptation.

HTML5 adoption

Already, most of the latest browsers in smartphone platforms offer either partial or full support for HTML5 and those with partial support now will add more features as their technologies are updated, said Neil Shah, analyst for wireless device strategies at Strategy Analytics. He projects annual sales of HTML5 handsets will reach 1 billion units in 2013, up from 336 million in 2011.

With the HTML5 device market growing, interest in HTML5 among developers is not surprising. Ovum's Leach has found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of mobile developers surveyed are using HTML5 as the preferred programming approach for delivering cross-platform applications as they move away from traditional approaches based on Java, Flash and WAP.

Developers still want to create native apps. Three-fourths (75 percent) of the developers said they support and will continue to support native apps, Leach found.

"We haven't seen a tipping point where mobile developers say ‘we won't do native anymore,'" he said. "We still see native apps as the main way that mobile application developers will get their applications out to smart phones."

Evans Data has also queried mobile developers about HTML5 adoption. In its most recent global developer survey, the company found that nearly three-fourths (73.4 percent) of mobile developers are using HTML5. The vast majority (nearly 85 percent) said HTML5 is important to their work: 43.4 percent said it is extremely important and 41.3 percent said it is somewhat important.

Standardization and market barriers

HTML5 itself is still evolving and the standard won't be completed until 2014. Mobile platforms and vendors are implementing it inconsistently, which undercuts HTML5's promise of cross-platform portability because developers must still tweak their apps to make sure they work on as many handsets as possible.

However, these issues will be resolved during the next couple years, and as that occurs the industry will see a shift away from native apps and an increase in HTML5 apps, particularly for apps that do not require heavy use of device processing capabilities, Leach said. 

Another issue is that smart phones aren't prevalent in many global markets, which limits HTML5's reach. Shah of Strategy Analytics noted, however, that some feature phone browsers can support some aspects of the technology today and more will follow suit as these handsets gain better processing capabilities and performance characteristics.

Evaluating the options

As interest in HTML5 continues to build, companies must evaluate if HTML5 is best for their own strategic businesses needs and the wants and needs of their customers.

Scott Jenson, creative director at frog design, said that many clients coming to frog for mobile product strategy and design services are still entranced by the current app model and can't think beyond it. Jenson, who is very supportive of HTML5, believes that for many use-cases, customers may respond better to HTML5 apps.  

"We're not saying you can't do an app, but we're saying that the world has moved on and you're using ideas that were popular two years ago. In many, many ways the app is not the best model, and we talk to clients about that. But it varies and there are no hard and fast rules."

Hybrid approaches that combine HTML5 and native capabilities will give businesses an opportunity to exploit the benefits of each approach.

PhoneGap, an open source HTML5 platform that allows developers to author native applications with web technologies and get access to native APIs and app stores, has been used to bridge the HTML5-native app divide by companies ranging from Wikipedia to the Orbium puzzle game to Untappd, a social network for beer.

Brian Leroux, computer scientist at PhoneGap, warns developers from picking any one approach as a winner. That's risky in the technology industry, and especially so in mobile, because the mobile market is fickle. But when it comes to HTML5, he suggests taking a chance nevertheless.

"One thing we have learned is that the web is a pretty safe bet, and something a lot of people are betting on is that choosing the browser as a platform isn't a bad idea," he said.  

Service2Media, a mobile app development company that offers a lifecycle platform for designing and managing apps and services that can run natively on multiple mobile devices, will incorporate HTML5 to create hybrid solutions if it is useful for a product or if a client requests it. But the company doesn't think HTML5 is ready for prime time, particularly for apps that require access to device components or those that will be used for banking and other complex enterprise services that require a lot of encryption or back-end integration.

"This is about being agile and recognizing what it is you're trying to achieve," said Martin Gandar, research fellow and app evangelist at Service2Media. "It is not a simple winner takes all or one's better than the other [debate], but what is appropriate for the circumstances."