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HTML 5: No Silver Bullet

2011 April 22
Hotwire mobile commerce HTML5 site

Hotwire mobile HTML5 site

Many technologists hope HTML5 will be the silver bullet to tame the mobile chaos. Ironically, HTML5 simply adds another mobile channel organizations must support.

The HTML5 standard isn’t scheduled for completion until 2022. But even if it were standardized today, intense competitive forces would start splintering the technology as they have with many technologies before. Most importantly, future hardware and software innovations will only be accessible through native applications until the standards are updated and browsers implement the support. This process could take years.

This means marketers wanting to compete effectively in the mobile marketplace can’t rely on browser technology alone. For better or for worse, organizations must continue using native applications and other technologies in addition to browsers.

Marketers wanting to compete effectively in the mobile marketplace can’t rely on browser technology alone

Why HTML5 is no silver bullet:

  • Standard not scheduled for completion until 2022
  • Native necessary to access innovative hardware until support is added into HTML5 and browsers begin implementing that support
  • Non-standard browser implementations caused by competitive forces

About HTML5

HTML5 is a significant new revision to the HTML standard that lets browsers do things previously only native applications could do. For example, HTML5 provides access to the camera, accelerometer, and local storage. Browsers on Android 2.3, iPhone 4, and the BlackBerry Torch already use HTML5.

Companies are already taking advantage of many of the new features these browsers provide. For example, Hotwire (http://m.hotwire.com) uses the current location to assist with travel searches from HTML5-enabled browsers.

Not all browsers support HTML5. Many new phones and even yet-to-be-released phones don’t support HTML5. Of course, older phones don’t support HTML5 either. Therefore, organizations must support other browsers for the foreseeable future and HTML5 must be supported separately in the meantime.

Native innovation
Companies are developing mobile solutions to innovate and compete better. Native applications came about when developers wanted to access to phone hardware and chafed under Apple’s browser-only restrictions. Jailbreaking became an arms race between Apple and the so-called iPhone Dev Team group of hackers. Ultimately Apple provided native application support, which has of course become a tremendous success.

As devices offer new hardware and software innovations in the future, innovators will want use them in unique ways and won’t wait for standards organizations and browser manufacturers to expose the functionality. Innovative companies will write native applications to use the features and if successful, competitive pressures will force the rest of the industry to provide the features and they’ll have to do it through native functionality too.

Organizations must continue using native applications and other technologies in addition to browsers

History of fragmentation and no silver bullet

Mobile phone technology has been fragmenting throughout its history. Just when it seems we have a handle on the boundaries of the fragmentation, something like tablets comes along and opens up new dimensions to the chaos.

Fragmentation arises wherever there is fierce competition and mobile is one of the fiercest battlegrounds today. Mobile carriers, device manufacturers, and software providers compete based on the differentiation of their products. They have strong incentives to make their products different and prevent users from switching to competitive products. Carriers and device manufacturers have little to gain from keeping HTML5 standardized with competing products.

Technologists keep looking for the silver bullet to no avail. Fred Brooks wrote a famous software development treatise called “No Silver Bullet” in 1986. He’s also the author of the canonized “Mythical Man-Month” book on software development. Brooks’ premise was that no technology standard would provide an order-of-magnitude improvement in software development. He identified software compiler software, structured programming techniques, and in a later revision, object-oriented development as very useful inventions that moved the industry forward, yet none of these technologies provided the silver bullet order-of-magnitude productivity increases.

Summary

HTML5 is a fantastic technology that provides significant browsing improvements. However, it will not reduce the need for companies to provide native applications as a part of their mobile channel mix. On the contrary, HTML5 is another technology organizations must support in able to compete effectively and reach customers in the medium of their choice.

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