HTML5: The Web App Promise Land?

HTML5 leading us to the promise land.

We’ve heard a lot about all the fantastic things HTML5 can and will do. But its most intriguing promise is to completely disrupt the world of apps that you download to your phone. The same smooth user experience that you experience (with all the cool buttons, sounds, music, motion, pictures, etc) on your favorite app from the App Store or Google Play will eventually be brought to the humble web browser, instantly. But there are many challenges that need to be dealt with first.

I’m going to use phrases like “native apps” and “web apps” quite a bit, so let me define these terms here. A “native app” is what you download from an app store that stores data within the app, manipulates that data within the confines of that app, and utilizes many of the phone’s other functions that is allowed by the respective operating systems. Games (like Angry Birds) and photo apps (like Instagram) are perfect examples. Instagram uses the phone’s camera to take pictures and its own software to add filters or effects.

A “web app” by contrast is more like a shell of a native app, but really encases a lot of web-based data. Think of it like a fancy web browser that only shows one web page. Apps for Facebook or LinkedIn are perfect examples. Other than the camera feature, you can access all aspects of these two sites from the mobile browser (like iOS Safari or the Android browser).

The promise of HTML5 is to take the best of both worlds. You would be able to “play” Angry Birds within your browser w/o any download. Or you would be able to take photos and upload them to Instagram w/o leaving your browser and clicking on a dedicated app. Updates would be instant since companies would just have to modify one web site. Developing separate apps for different operating systems would be a thing of the past, since all you’re developing is one fancy web site. Even traditional web sites would benefit. Consider the steps you have to upload a picture to a web page using your phone:

  1. Open camera app
  2. Take a pic
  3. Save to gallery
  4. Open browser and web page
  5. Select photo
  6. Upload

With HTML5, sites like eBay could have a “take photo” button directly on their page. This would launch the camera right in the browser. Snapping a picture will save directly on the web page. Two steps instead of six. Sounds dreamy. But as with any highly touted tech, there does come a dose of reality.

Limited access to deeper function of the device.

Very few devices allow web sites to access functions like camera or contact list functions to allow an HTML5 based web page to “take a picture” or to auto send a text to your friend. Some of this is done for security reasons. Hardware developers are loathe to provide a connection from a browser to deeper functions. Imagine a rogue web page downloading pic of your kids from your phone. Of course there will be solutions to this problem, but for now, web pages must be contained within the browser environment.

Mobile browsers suck!

However, before browsers can gain access to other phone functions, they need to all come up to speed with their desktop counterparts regarding compatibility with all the great things HTML5 has to offer. The W3C has developed a specification document for HTML. According to www.caniuse.com, the most compatible browser is Mobile Opera at 68% compliant followed by  iOS Safari and Android browser at 61% compliant.  Their desktop counterparts are equally if not more compatible. It’s a chicken/egg problem. Without compatible browsers, there won’t be much development in HTML 5. But without many developers creating HTML5 web apps, there’s no need for compliant mobile browsers.

Too much money made in app stores.

The current economy of apps sold on app stores provides a fair amount of revenue for both developers and Apple/Google. App Store and Play are also powerful touchpoints for customers of each platform to merchandise popular apps. I would doubt that Apple would want to allow web browsers to access deeper functions of the phone since it would decentralize app distribution. This would mean less control over many things: revenue, customer access, and quality. With the ability to distribute “native” app-like experience through the web means bigger developer shops like Rovio can make more money. Conversely, individual developers or smaller shops would be lost in the crowd without an app store’s ability to track up-and-coming apps and customer reviews.

HTML5 offers a lot of promise, but as with anything, the tech needs to be tested, devices need to provide more HTML5 friendly software, and companies will need to figure out how to monetize their HTML5 “apps” with or without a centralized app store.