Will HTML5 Kill the Mobile App?

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For a couple of years now, we’ve been talking about apps for a multitude of purposes. Mobile apps continue to be the preferred way to deliver new services or content to mobile devices.

But the whole idea of the “the app” might be heading for a big change. A day may soon come when, instead of visiting the App Store or the Android Market, you'll just click a link on your homescreen to launch an app in your browser.

Native Apps Have Ruled

When developing apps for mobile devices, developers usually build a “native app”--the kind of app you buy at an app store and install in the memory of your phone. Native apps have been the de facto standard for adding functionality to your phone.

To this point, most developers would agree, native apps have looked better and performed better than their browser-based counterparts. Most users have looked at the mobile browser as something to avoid, because it’s such a hassle to use--especially when you need to input data.

Native apps have been more predictable than browser-based ones, too. Because native apps run from the phone's memory, they aren’t subject to unpredictability and inconsistency in the way various mobile browsers render them.

In addition, native apps rely less on the network: Since they store much of their content on the phone, native apps don’t rely on a network connection the way browser apps do. Browser apps typically reside on a server in the cloud and must constantly tap the cloud via a Wi-Fi or cellular connection for content. If that network connection is poor or unavailable, the browser app’s performance may suffer greatly.

But Native Apps Are Troublesome

For a long time, developers with limited resources made apps for Apple iOS devices and Android devices because doing so enabled them to get their app onto the largest number of phones.

But this rationale is beginning to lose force, in part because marketing native apps in an app store is hard for developers. In the case of iOS apps, even getting an app accepted to the App Store is a challenge. Though Apple applies the same set of criteria to each app submitted to it for acceptance, developers say that if Apple doesn’t like an app--for any reason--the company rejects it.

Though developers have less difficulty getting their apps accepted at the Android Market, apps can quickly get lost among the store's thousands of other apps, many of which are low-quality programs.

Another problem for app developers is that they must create multiple different versions of their native app for different mobile operating systems (iOS, Android, and others) and in some instances different versions of those OS families. So developers have to spend a lot of time and money “versioning” their apps, instead of improving them or creating new ones.

Lost in the Super Market

As noted earlier, a native app that has made its way into an app store may receive very little notice at all. As app stores have grown--and become bloated with shoddy or useless apps--accessing apps has become more of a hassle. WildTangent vice president Matt Shea says that because the big app stores are a one-stop-shop for all categories of apps, they are unwieldy and often fail to categorize and organize apps sensibly. As a result, app buyers can't locate the perfect app for the task they have in mind even though it may exist in the store--and that's a big problem for the app's developer.

Shea says that poor cataloging of apps at the big app stores helps explain the rise of specialized app stores like WildTangent, which offers only games and categorizes them carefully so visitors can more easily find the apps they’re looking for.

Is HTML5 the Answer?

Many people in the mobile community believe that developers could avoid these headaches if they used HTML5 to develop browser-based apps. HTML5 is the first upgrade to hypertext markup language since 1999. Though the official HTML5 standard won’t be officially completed by the W3C (Worldwide Web Consortium) until 2014, most modern mobile browsers already support the language, and many Web developers are already designing HTML5 sites.

In a nutshell, HTML5 will let browsers--desktop and mobile--do a lot of cool new things, such as location detection, and audio and video playback without plug-ins. Syncing will improve, too, so that you can watch part of a movie at work, and then continue watching it on your commuter train ride home.

Perhaps the biggest potential benefit of HTML5 is that it will enable app developers to focus on making one version of each app, which will then run smoothly in many kinds of browsers, freeing them to move on to bringing more and better apps to market. It might also encourage them to spend more money on marketing and promotion and less on the grunt work of versioning.

The network is a factor, too. With the advent of 4G networks, which can deliver content ten times faster than 3G networks can, users will be able to retrieve content from the network far faster and more reliably than in the past--and browser-based apps will have a far better chance of matching the performance of native apps.

As for promotional considerations, browser-based mobile apps reduce developers' reliance on the app stores. In order for native apps to have a chance at success, developers must promote them through the app stores; but browser-based apps lend themselves better to Web promotion via social media like Twitter and Google+, proponents say.

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