HTML5 in 2014: Is it time for a comeback?

New developer tools and a mobile browser suggest the industry is giving the beleaguered technology a second look, but what will it mean for app stores?

It may be getting a little late to call it a New Year's resolution, but Rob Grossberg would really like his fellow developers, platform providers and social media giants to put an end to the negativity about HTML5 in 2014.

TreSensa Rob Grossberg


"We've lived the hype wave and survived it," said Grossberg, the CEO of TreSensa, a New York-based firm that has built games like True Survival for HBO and Cupcakes vs. Veggies, among others. "When we started using HTML5 we had a ton of naysayers saying it's not going to work, that native will win. We just stuck to our guns and our belief was that over the next couple of years, the mobile browser will get stronger, devices would get stronger, and we saw exactly that happen."

HTML5 could be gaining steam
There are other signs that HTML5 might be on the rise. According to a recent report from Vision Mobile entitled "Can HTML5 compete with Native?" 37 percent of Android apps could be implemented using HTML5 via a mobile browser, 49 percent via Phonegap, 63 percent via Appcelerator and 98 percent via Firefox OS. 

Vision Mobile looked at the percent of apps in the U.S. Google Play store that can be implemented with each HTML5 route to market, that utilize APIs available through that HTML5 route to market alone. Vision Mobile obtained its findings from, among other sources, a survey of 6,000 respondents between April and May 2013.

Intel, meanwhile, recently released its XDK HTML5 Cross-platform Toolkit. And over the holidays late last month, Raspberry Pi Foundation released an HTML5-compatible browser in beta form.

While most developers acknowledge that complex games typically require native code, simple games could be written in HTML5. And HTML5 is designed to run across all types of devices, from smartphones to tablets--thereby dramatically reducing developers' workload by removing the requirement to build specific versions of their game for each specific platform, be it iOS, Windows Phone or Android.

For Grossberg, working with HTML5 to create TreSensa mobile games was the first step in a strategy that has since seen the firm offer a gaming engine that other developers now use to build their own HTML5 apps. He says the criticisms from the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg--who famously led Facebook away from HTML5 in 2012--and others were short-sighted. 

"What we did not foresee at the time was how quickly people are upgrading their devices," Grossberg said. "People on mobile devices like snacking on games, but it's very hard to do snacking when you need to do downloads. It's a deeper commitment."

Developer surveys show HTML5 interest
Two months ago, Waltham, Mass.-based Telerik, which provides developer tools, released a study called "The HTML5 vs. Native Debate is Over. The Winner is ...", based on a survey with more than 3,500 responses. Among those, 57% said they believe HTML5 is either enterprise-ready or will be within 12 months, which suggests it should be a fit for the consumer space as well. HTML5 and JavaScript were also cited as the best choice for building cross-platform apps and games.

However, other surveys of developers have found slowing interest in HTML5. For example, the number of developers reporting to be "very interested" in building apps on HTML5 fell to 59.9 percent in the most recent survey from IDC and Appcelerator--the lowest level since the companies began tracking the specification in April 2011. "Interest in HTML5 peaked in July 2012 at 72.7 percent, and has shown an uneven but downward slope since," the report said.

Appcelerator and IDC surveyed 6,698 mobile developers from November 14-30, 2013.

Nonetheless, according to Brandon Satrom, Telerik's director of product development and cross-platform solutions, HTML5 Canvas and SVG are already helping developers create high-performing casual games. "I expect that mobile browser adoption of WebGL, which is not yet widespread, would take adoption to another level altogether," he said.

The next obstacle: How to take HTML5 apps to market
Even if developers are becoming more accepting of HTML5, how they take their apps or games based on the standard to market may mark the next wave of controversy. According to the Vision Mobile report, 61 percent of HTML5 mobile developers go direct to the mobile browser, 27 percent use a web wrapper like Phonegap, 7 percent use a native JavaScript API platform like BlackBerry Webworks, and just 5 percent use a Web-to-native converter like Appcelerator. 

"It's great to still focus on the app store. It's a great place where people are very comfortable. Our big point to (developers) is: Don't make that your only channel," said TreSensa's Grossberg. "We're seeing heavy interest from a lot of emerging mobile game portals. All the companies that have had successful online Flash game portals, their audience is moving towards mobile. I also think we'll see a lot more HTML5 marketplaces."

This could prove highly disruptive to the traditional app store model, Satrom suggests. 

"The stores are increasingly being seen by developers as 'walled gardens' that force them into platform adoption and fragmented codebases in order to obtain access," he said. "Many developers are rejecting that and, in cases where the browser has the features and APIs they need, they are taking a cross-platform and Web-based approach." 

Ultimately, this means that instead of relying on app store searches or distributing their apps via QR Codes, Satrom said, developers can use strategies that Web developers have used for years to optimize for Web-based search and distribution.

"I think developers should rely on the tried and true methods that have grown up over the last decade on the 'desktop Web,'" he added. "Using SEO and information architecture methods for UX and discoverability, analytics and A/B testing for engagement and ads for monetization."

As the Web platform evolves, developers should be able to get access to mobile APIs typically reserved for native apps, like payments or in-app purchases, which may be critical for getting developers who are more focused on driving revenue to see value in HTML5. As much as it may be making a comeback, even Grossberg admits there will be situations where native is still the right choice. 

"We know that there are still limitations. If you have heavy, heavy audio in a game, it's best to go native," he said. "But for a whole wide range of casual games, it's there."