Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg created a tempest in a teapot — or its social networking equivalent — last month when he elaborated at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in San Jose on why the social networking giant had pulled back from HTML5.
Here is the comment (transcribed from the TechCrunch video of the event) of the part of the conversation between Zuckerberg and host Michael Arrington that created the hubbub:
I think the biggest mistake that we made as a company is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native because it just wasn’t there yet. It’s not that HTML5 is bad. I’m long-term very excited about it.
The problem was that more was made of the first part of the statement than the second. The first sentence — especially the first part of it — seems to be a repudiation of HTML5. Some coverage focused on that angle. What Zuckerberg clearly was saying is that the company jumped to the new Web approach too early and that Facebook’s ability to implement it was not sufficiently developed. The standard itself was not the problem.
It can be inferred by the more benign explanation of the quote — that it was a significant mistake in timing by the company, but not a condemnation of the approach — that Facebook truly believes in the concept. Why else, then, would it have jumped the gun?
In any case, the incident begs the question of precisely where HTML5 is today.
The answer seems to be that progress is being made. “There is a graph online that I’ve seen that looks at new and disruptive technologies,” said Roy Smith, the vice president of marketing for appMobi, a vendor of HTML5 tools for developers. “There is a period of overhyped expectations and a trough of reality and then a slow hill of adoption and then finally ubiquity. I would say we are at the bottom of the disappointment trough [and headed upwards]. People are doing real things every day with HTML5 and doing those things well.”
HTML5 is a big deal for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it allows video and multimedia features to be used without add-ons. The other major benefit of the HTML5 — which is the next iteration of the Hyper Transport Markup Language — is perhaps even more important: By using HTML as the creation environment, the need to write applications for multiple operating systems — Apple’s iOS, Android, Windows Phone and so on — is eliminated. This is a major step towards making the mobile Web more efficient and, therefore, more lucrative for developers and end users.
John “JT” Thomas, the director of product management for Embarcadero, a company that creates tools for developers, provided insight into the ways in which efficiency will be gained. In the legacy environment, he said, developers upload a version of an application to a test server and run it through browsers running on different operating systems and make changes as needed in each case.
That is not the case in the HTML5 environment. Using tools such as Webkit and jQuery, Thomas said, developers can write once for use on all the operating systems. One of the flies in the ointment, he said, is that developers are pretty set in their ways. “Old habits die hard,” he said. “Web developers are used to working a certain way, with a standalone system testing four or five different browsers and seeing if they work across the board. That way of operation is still pretty common [even] if they are developing Web apps.”
HTML5’s ability to create applications independent of the underlying operating system and for use on all platforms is especially important in the age of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) work arrangements. Since it becomes difficult or even impossible to control what devices and operating systems employees use, the ability to write once for all possibilities is an extraordinary head start — and one that is far more valuable than it would have been before the BYOD approach took root. “It is a way to have a common code base across all platforms,” Thomas said.
Enterprise managers and the companies for whom they work should have HTML5 on their radar screens. Jacob Gube, a Web developer and founder and chief editor of the Web design and development site Six Revisions, suggested that it is prudent for organizations to work with good and flexible developers. “You must have a talented development team because HTML5 and mobile are considered to be cutting edge,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “Not only is it still in its infancy, but things are changing very fast. They must be able to know how things will shift, and be able to quickly roll with the punches as needed.”
The acceptance of the new approach is not universal. appMobi’s Smith suggests that there are entrenched interests who stand to lose some advantage if the universal standard catches on. He likens what is happening in the mobile sector to the situation when HTML was introduced. “What we are seeing with mobile is a replay of that,” he said. The industry benefits greatly from having that unifying structure, but getting there can be quite ugly.”
In the final analysis, using HTML5 or native apps is not an either/or choice. For instance, intense tasks as “twitch” video games or, in corporate environments, scenarios in which deep integration to complex backend infrastructure is necessary likely are best performed by native apps. On the other hand, use cases in which the demands on the applications are not too deep — such as a consumer-based app offering product information — and cases where employees use an inordinate number of different operating systems call for HTML5. “The choice of going HTML or native … depends on your objectives and the situation,” Gube said