HTML5: An opportunity for mobile - Mobile World Live

HTML5: An opportunity for mobile

20 SEP 2010

HTML5, the next version of the HTML standard which underpins the Web, features a number of enhancements over previous incarnations which will make it both more suited to rich Internet applications and more suitable for mobile. As a widely supported standard, it could also remove many of the cross-platform compatibility issues which cause headaches for developers today, especially when used alongside other common Web technologies including CSS and JavaScript.

Many publishers have already looked to HTML5 to develop mobile applications, including Google and Yahoo!, and the best-developed products deliver a user interface comparable with native applications. But, as with all technologies, HTML5 is not perfect, and in some cases native application development will remain the preferred model.


Mobile Apps Briefing spoke to Mark Watson (pictured), chief executive officer of Volantis, to find out his views:

Is HTML5 at a stage where it is mature and stable for mobile development, or will future iterations cause incompatibility and fragmentation?
HTML5 is stable enough for mobile development, but it is not yet mature. Far from being a hindrance, this is actually an opportunity for innovation. Premature standardisation risks limiting this innovation and stifling the opportunities that HTML5 could deliver. History is littered with examples of this, not least: OSI losing to TCP/IP, UNIX losing to Windows and X.400 losing to SMTP. HTML5 would be better served by a common set of capabilities and APIs around which we can encourage innovation. 

Today, we all ought to be able to agree about how to make rounded corners work, for example, and on how to embed fonts, how to make local storage areas for browser applications, and so on. We probably won’t all agree about how to make 3D work, or e-ink displays work, but we shouldn’t prevent people from innovating in these areas.


What are the benefits of HTML5 apps over native apps?
The key benefit is the ease with which an application can be built to work on any mobile browser, and be maintained over time without further user downloads. Furthermore, HTML5 applications don’t have to contend with the limitations of an app store, such as adhering to guidelines in terms of subject matter and content, or paying a percentage of the revenue to the store.

Browser-based applications provide the most open way of building mobile applications, because they are both broadly portable between devices, and also because they are easily authored by non-expert programmers.


What are the benefits of native apps over HTML5?
Native apps benefit from their legacy and maturity. They currently have access to more APIs, but this is changing quickly to favour HTML5. There are also exciting developments in [Apple’s] iOS4 which is allowing multi-tasking. The app store model has been key to native apps’ success, making it easy to market to a wide audience. But this is not without its drawbacks; countless thousands of apps have quickly got lost if they were not immediately successful.


Are there certain applications which are more suited to native apps than HTML5? And vice versa?
Native apps lend themselves to complex gaming as there is a wealth of APIs which create an involving in-game experience, not to mention the amount of data which is needed to live stream a complex game through a web-browser.

However, web applications have a clear advantage in terms of sharing content and updating information immediately. As more APIs for HTML5 become available, the potential for gaming will be a significant growth area for developers.


Do you think HTML5 will genuinely lead to simple cross-platform mobile programming?
HTML5 will lead to unprecedented levels of cross-platform programming, but only if browsers are able to access new capabilities as they arrive.

Java struggled with inconsistencies as it tried to interact with a mobile phone the same way it would with a desktop PC. At the time, first generation WAP-enabled phones were about as sophisticated as pocket calculators and developers had to concentrate on protecting phones from the very code they were trying to run, rather than building compelling user experiences. 

The latest smartphones are powerful computers in their own right with endless possibilities. The challenge for HTML5 is to ensure we develop applications that make full use of these smartphones’ capabilities to drive more compelling end user experiences. HTML5 lends itself far better to this open innovation, not least because it is an easier and safer way to write applications for mobile phones compared to a system programming language such as Java.


Does HTML5 offer the same potential for packaged applications as native software?
HTML5 is not a barrier for packaged applications. Many vendors are already using W3C WebApps Standard for packaging and configuration. I would expect this to become the preferred method of deployment for offline applications to ensure they are packaged consistently and interoperably.


What percentage of mobile devices currently have HTML5 support?
Over 350 devices currently support some HTML5 features; these include the iPhone, the high-end HTCs and the new Nokia devices. However, the phone itself is less important for HTML5 than the browser which the user chooses to download. None of the mobile browsers available, or PC browsers for that matter, support the full feature set of HTML5 as its range of capabilities is growing so quickly.


Volantis  delivers technology intended to enable mobile Internet services to be delivered to a range of devices, delivering an optimised user experience tailored to a user’s handset profile. Mark Watson said that its focus is on “increasing interoperability between legacy, current and emerging technologies, maximising the number of users who can access a good experience on their mobile device.” In July 2010, the company announced Framework 6.0, an extension of its core mobile content delivery platform, which is intended to enable developers to build websites and applications using HTML5 and CSS3, without the need for Java programming. It is also said to address the challenges faced by developers as a result of differences in HTML5 browser standards, including “the introduction of new features without warning and the discovery of ‘bugs’ in newly manufactured mobile devices.”

Established: 2000
Headquarters: Surrey, UK
Ownership: Privately held. Investors include Accel Partners, Kennet Partners and SoftBank Europe Ventures
Key Execs: Mark Watson (Co-founder and CEO); Gareth Anderson (Chief Financial Officer); Trevor Cook (Senior VP Sales); Jennifer Bursack (Co-founder and VP Product Management); Brett Nulf (Co-founder and VP Sales Asia Pacific)
Membership: W3C, Open Mobile Alliance

Steve Costello


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