HTML5 vs. native: It may be the wrong debate

Do developers need to reframe their questions around the popular standard?

When Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg told TechCrunch Disrupt attendees last month that betting on HTML5 for a mobile app was the biggest mistake Facebook has ever made, many other industry players were already working to convince other developers it was less of a gamble.

PhoneGap Build allows devs to combine HTML5 with CSS and Javascript to build cross-platform apps.
Source: Adobe

Last week, for example, Adobe announced the first products and services in its Edge suite of HTML5 development tools. Edge includes Animate 1.0 for creating interactive content and Edge Inspect to provide cross-mobile previewing and debugging, but the biggest buzz surrounded PhoneGap Build. Offered via a cloud-based service for a monthly fee, PhoneGap Build lets develops mash up HMTL5 with CSS and JavaScript into applications that work across devices platforms such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone.

"We just think it's a much more approachable option for developers," said Heidi Voltmer, senior vice president of global marketing at Adobe. "You can download the whole PhoneGap SDK and do all the packaging on the desktop. It's a little bit of extra work, but you could also just upload it to the cloud and get it packaged up instead."

Also entering into the HTML5 conversion and optimization space is San Francisco-based mobile game developer Ludei. The company created the Ludei Cloud Compiler, which can turn any HTML5 app into a hybrid native app. Available now as a free public beta, Ludei uses hybrid binaries from HTML5 apps that can be easily distributed.  

Ludei Cloud Compiler

The Ludei Cloud Compiler can convert an HTML5-based app into a native app.
Source: Ludei

"We've gone to all the people throwing spears at HTML5 and showed them you can solve [the] performance [problems], you can solve [the lack of] in-app payments," said Ludei President Joe Monastiero. "What we do is take the latest HTML5 deliverable in Safari and Android and so on and fill in the blanks."

The Adobe Edge launch marked a major move by the company to shift focus from its legacy Flash technology to HTML5, though the former still has many more development tools available. Still, Adobe's Voltmer was bullish on PhoneGap Build, noting that the SDK of PhoneGap has already been downloaded more than one million times.

"There are many more who didn't want to take on that challenge, in which case this cloud service will be open to anyone," said Voltmer. "We think we'll see it power many other apps."

Monastiero, who previously co-founded AppMobi, said there's more than enough room and demand among developers for multiple toolsets.

"I welcome competition. It's good to have a giant company validate this market," he said. "People in this space who know what the reality is vs. the negativity and the hype, they want to promote HTML5 and continue using it. HTML5 has a bad rap relatively recently."

That's putting it mildly. Apart from Zuckerberg's scathing comments, a recent survey from market researcher IDC and Appcelerator showed developers either "neutral" or dissatisfied with nearly every feature in HTML5. This included not only performance and user experience but also issues with potential fragmentation, a concern that was recently raised by Mozilla Chief of Innovation Todd Simpson in an interview with FierceDeveloper.

What are the benefits of HTML5 for developers?
HTML5's widespread use may be linked not only to its cross-functionality but the fact it can require smaller development teams, which makes sense in the consumer space where many developers work independently on apps as a sideline. For Noel Webb, vice president at SpeakFeel Corp. in Toronto,  the debate over native vs. HTML5 largely misses the point. Webb recently spoke at a user experience event where he also suggested that developers should be wary of relying too much on cross-platform development tools such as PhoneGap or Ludei.

HTML5 chart

"We're coming at it not from technology basis but a business model basis--what is the business result you're looking for, not the tech requisites," Webb said. "If you want to be able to use your phone, to do geolocation or those kinds of things, it has to go as a native application. If it's not hard-wired into the products you want to develop for, you look at how to reach user base--and then on top of that, what are the components that allow for that? What's important is that it runs smoothly, quickly, if it's useful or fun to the user. It's not necessarily just based on the question of whether it should be native or HTML5."

While developers sort out the answers to those questions, there's the possibility that some of HTML5's limitations could be improved at the standards body level. Last week the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced plans to finalize HTML5 by 2014, and a successor, HTML 5.1, two years later. No one seems to be counting on the W3C. Adobe's Voltmer said she couldn't comment on the in-depth issues around HTML5 challenges, and Ludei's Monastiero said he believes the answer is integrating technology like his firm's into the browser itself.

"The standards bodies are kind of solving fragmentation, but there are a lot of pieces that are missing," Monastiero said. "There's still no way to do analytics, to do push notifications, to have camera access or to offer geolocation orientation."

Webb, whose firm has made both HTML5 and native apps, speculated that one restraint on HTML5 progress might be the fact that companies such as Apple tend to make the majority of their money from native apps, and a better version of HTML5 might threaten those kinds of revenue streams.

"Those standards haven't been regulated or built up to the degree they could be. It's still a bit of a Wild West," he said. "I don't know if anyone in particular is taking the bull by the horns, as much as I'd love to see it happen."