HTML5: Doomed to fail or just getting started?

While HTML5 has promised much and delivered little, it is quietly winning developer converts where many least expected it: outside the browser.


HTML5 looks doomed to fail. As promising as it started, performance demands and superior toolkits have driven Apple's iOS and Google's Android to almost complete dominance.

And yet... there's still hope for HTML5. As VisionMobile describes in its annual Mobile Megatrends report, while HTML5 will never reach its potential within the web browser, it has a bright future beyond the browser.

Where HTML5 fails

Despite its promise, HTML5 has largely failed to offer a browser-based alternative to Apple and Google. Firefox Mobile may prove the exception, recently notching some significant wins in emerging markets, but it's still a very small exception.

The reasons are clear.

Developers want easy-to-use, powerful tools, but HTML5 yields them a somewhat fragmented platform that lags native tool-chains from Apple and Google. Developers need distribution, so they launch in the Apple App Store and/or Google Play Store (never mind that they quickly get lost in the clutter of millions of other apps....). They need monetization, and the major platforms provide an understandable — if difficult — route to money.

HTML5 offers an open alternative to these platforms, but as VisionMobile points out, "The open nature of HTML5 doesn't intrinsically help anybody do their job better." It may keep developers free, but it doesn't pay the rent.

Everyone's second choice

While some developers still mull whether or not to build a web app, the reality is that the vast majority of the market has moved on. For those who still wonder, Linda Bustos uncovered a nice SapientNitro mobile development decision tree. TL;DR You're going to use iOS or Android, anyway.

Figure A

But that's not quite true.

After all, while developers overwhelmingly go with iOS or Android as their first-choice development platform, HTML5 tends to be everyone's back-up, as VisionMobile details.

As I've argued before, while HTML5 is only the first priority for 26% of developers, it's likely to continue as everyone's favorite second (or third) option. As seen in the VisionMobile data, even being "runner-up" in this market is a big deal, with 52% of developers using HTML5.

Missing the forest for the browser

Thinking about HTML5 as an alternative to iOS or Android is wrong-headed, anyway. While developers once looked to HTML5 as a way to deliver apps to the browser, that's no longer the case. This, more than anything else, is why HTML5 has a bright future in mobile development, as VisionMobile captures:

Figure B

HTML5 study by VisionMobile.

Once we start thinking of HTML5 apps in this more nuanced way, it becomes clear that HTML5 is in no way constrained by the browser. Frameworks like Ember.js or app platforms like these reviewed by TechRepublic make it easy to build rich hybrid apps that benefit from developers' familiarity with HTML, while allowing them to extend it with native code.

HTML5, in other words, isn't an alternative to iOS or Android. It's a perfect complement to them, or can be. Developers get true cross-platform compatibility with HTML5, allowing them to write significant chunks of their app in HTML5 and then fine-tune it for different platforms using native code.

It's the best of both worlds, which is why HTML5's future remains very bright.

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Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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