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HTML5 - Will it Really Make Native Apps Obsolete?

Given the recent release of Amazon’s new HTML5 Cloud Reader web app, we thought it made sense to address HTML5, especially since we’ve been talking so much about mobile technology lately. HTML5 Logo

For a few years now, there’s been quite a bit of debate about whether HTML5 will make native mobile apps (i.e., apps designed specifically for the iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, etc.) obsolete. What do we think? Eh, maybe, but not completely and not any time soon. So, what’s fueling this debate? Or, taking it back one step even further, what exactly is HTML5?

HTML5 Explained

HTML5 is the fifth version of the HTML language that provides the basic building blocks of web pages. It will be the first version to support multimedia without plugins and has the ability to be “understood” by all computers and devices.

In addition, HTML5 web apps can be accessed and used on any device via a web browser, much like a mobile website. These web apps also provide the capability for offline access and usage via application cache, meaning you don't have to have a network connection to use them.

Given that HTML5 could allow you to develop a single web app rather than multiple native apps, some have predicted the impending demise of the native app.
Getting back to Amazon's recent release, it’s likely the primary reason they took the web app route was to bypass the 30% cut that Apple takes on transactions made via iOS native apps in the App Store. The ability to bypass app stores presents an additional advantage for companies that use mobile apps to engage consumers in purchase transactions.

HTML5’s Pitfalls

HTML5 sounds pretty great, right? Less development time = less expense, simplification, etc. However, HTML5 is not without its downside. There was an excellent article posted on InfoWorld earlier this month that went into great detail on the limitations of HTML5.  There are a few we want to highlight:
  1. Security issues. HTML5 web apps are set up in a way that ultra-savvy users could tamper with processing scripts, which might allow unauthorized access. Variables could be altered in a way that would allow hackers to access perks, discounts, etc. for which they really aren’t eligible.
  2. Synchronization challenges. We mentioned that HTML5 allows for offline app usage.  However, the InfoWorld post sums up the issue with this quite nicely, “If a Web app is connected to the Internet, it can continually save data to the cloud. When it's offline, changes aren't always stored in the cloud. When someone switches browsers or uses a different machine, copies begin to proliferate and the difficulties of synchronization rear their head.”
  3. Functionality does not rival that of a native app (not yet anyway). We’ve read several reviews of the Amazon Cloud Reader app.  Most say that it’s pretty good, but it’s no native app. It will be a while yet before web apps can offer the speed and features of a native app. So, even though Amazon is saving themselves that 30% cut for Apple by opting for a web app, it’s important to remember that consumers use native apps because they’re easy, fast and convenient.
  4. You lose the marketing benefits of being featured in app stores. If you’re Amazon, then maybe you don’t need app stores to help push your app. However, if you’re a smaller company, new and potential customers are probably more likely to find you if you’re featured in an app store.
  5. HTML5 is not quite ready for “prime-time.” The final reason we’re not 100% gung-ho on abandoning mobile apps for HTML5 web apps is that it’s just too early.  Developers are obviously able to use HTML5, but the latest we’ve read is that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—the group charged with creating HTML5—says that HTML5 won’t be fully complete until 2014.

Our Recommendation on HTML5 vs. Native Apps

Given where HTML5 is as of today, we stand by our earlier recommendations on mobile platforms. If you’ve followed our advice so far and determined that mobile apps make sense for you, we think you’re wise and safe to go that route in the near future.  However, as we seem to say quite often when writing about mobile technology, stay tuned! Has the buzz about HTML5 caused you to reconsider native app development for your company?  We hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts on this debate.