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Native vs. Web apps: Is HTML5 still relevant for the enterprise?
Analyst: Vishal Jain
12 Feb, 2013
In autumn 2012, when a beleaguered Facebook, facing criticism from the market for a tepid mobile strategy, finally shunned Web apps for native apps, it sounded like a death knell for the future of HTML5. So when Facebook said it 'relied too much on HTML5,' it summed up the frustration of app developers around the inability of standards organizations to keep pace with the growing complexity of mobile platforms. It also brought to boil the growing discontent within the HTML5 Working Group, since just a few months earlier the key standards bodies WHATWG and W3C parted ways to lead their own efforts on HTML development.
These events brought the need to engage with developers and address interoperability, testing and performance issues. In order to give a sense of urgency, WHATWG chose to drop the '5' from HTML5, preferring to term its work as a continuous evolution of HTML. W3C has finally completed its definition (i.e., candidate recommendation phase) of HTML5, choosing to add future iterations into a new version called 5.1. In parallel, W3C has launched new working groups to extend HTML5 into other industry segments, such as television, automotive and digital publishing.
Enterprise expectations from HTML5
The variation of feature support across mobile browsers has meant that enterprises have to build for the minimum set of features when building a multi-platform mobile Web app. That strategy can work in case of apps that require server-side processing, and companies like xTuple and smartTrade have made good use of such architecture to extensively use HTML5. The marketing arms of enterprises, which currently spend on native apps for each of their marketing campaigns, could turn out to be the biggest consumers of HTML5. For example, Pfizer has a portfolio of 500-plus iOS apps for its marketing campaigns across different geographies. At the moment, most of the HTML5 in mobile is being used for mobile website development. British Red Cross, Burberry, MIT and Bain Capital mobile websites are built using HTML5.
Where HTML5 scores
A lot of the initial focus on HTML5 was owing to its emergence as an alternative to Flash on iOS devices. In our recent discussions, several enterprises have wanted to know what utility HTML5 fulfills in the enterprise if one does not already have Web developers. There are two ways to look at the answer – one of which is content enablement, and the other is productivity gain. 'Mobile first' has become the starting point for any organization's renewed digital strategy. They do not want to maintain separate servers, objects and code to maintain different websites or pages for different devices, including desktops. By leveraging HTML5 across all of its apps – iOS, Android and Web app – LinkedIn found that it could reuse code and derive productivity benefits. However, it was not HTML5 across the board – the company tried to take the best of what was mature in HTML5, while relegating other tasks to native code.
Evolution of mobile Web standards
As the torchbearer of Web technology standardization, W3C has a lot at stake in the era of mobile devices. However, getting its 200-plus-member organization to agree on a set of interoperable and loyalty-free technologies is a mammoth, if not improbable, task. It has now pulled up its sleeves by forming working groups to address mobile Web app specifications around native APIs, security and protocols.
Web technologies to watch in mobile
WebSocket – allows Web applications to maintain bidirectional communication with server-side processes. It is particularly useful for real-time event-driven communications, such as stock tickers, betting and streaming media, and is coming up as an alternative to Comet, HTTP Ajax and iFrames. After the initial connection is established using an HTTP request, the WebSocket protocol replaces HTTP over TCP/IP, and maintains the connection as long as it is not terminated. Since it does away with header and footer information, the traffic payload and connection latency are minimal, and hence, less taxing on mobile devices and the server. Popular mobile browsers support WebSocket, and the server-side frameworks such as Node.js have built-in support. Vendors such as Push Technology, Kaazing and Lightstreamer (Weswit Srl) support WebSocket protocol. Layer 7 Technologies provides a gateway to manage WebSocket-based communications.
webRTC – is still in its early days, but the potential is immense, owing to its peer-to-peer communication capability. Hence, it can potentially replace the server, allowing two clients to directly establish a connection and share all kinds of data, such as audio and video. The protocol enjoys support from Microsoft; however, there is still a lack of interoperability between the protocol used by Google and the carrier-developed RCS-e specification. Although Cisco, AT&T and Ericsson have launched prototypes, these are early times for webRTC.
WebGL – provides the capability to render hardware-accelerated 3-D graphics on the browser. It is derived from the same specification that is used in native app development. Supported by Apple, Google, Mozilla and Opera, WebGL is currently being tested on mobile browsers, but with quad-core chipsets. It is expected to soon be generally supported across the next iteration of major smartphone platforms.
State of tooling
There are several app development platforms that bank on these frameworks to provide a complete development environment, along with simulators and the server-side hosting. HTML5 use in app development is becoming commonplace; however, the task of picking the right components from a basket of native and HTML5 components is getting even more complex. As enterprises seek a multi-platform and extensible capability, the maturity of these technologies rests on support from mobile browsers, frameworks, app development tools and other Internet infrastructure components, such as servers and message gateways. There is also the need to manage these mobile Web apps, something which we cover extensively in our forthcoming 451 Research long-format report on mobile app lifecycle management in the enterprise.
Reprinted with permission from 451 Research