Although under development for nearly five years, the emerging HTML5 standard has hit the spotlight thanks to rapid growth of smartphones and other smart devices and, more to the point, Steve Jobs’ highly personal message rejecting support of the Adobe Flash framework for Apple’s highly popular iPhone and iPad platforms. HTML5 will be a game changer, raising the bar for plain vanilla web development, but it will not end the world of plug-ins or proprietary frameworks.
Rich versus reach: HTML5 will be a game changer
Traditionally, web developers have had to make trade-offs when deciding whether to make their applications richer, because capabilities for rendering graphics or video or for manipulating data have required proprietary frameworks that may not be installed on all browsers. HTML5 significantly expands these capabilities within standard web browser programming.
The result is already prompting Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft to recalibrate their Rich Internet Application (RIA) client platform strategies. Apple has drawn a line in the sand, rejecting Flash for the popular iPhone and iPad mobile clients on the grounds that HTML5 will be good enough. Meanwhile, Microsoft is promoting HTML5 at the expense of its own Silverlight framework, while Adobe continues promoting the Flash framework but is also promising full HTML5 support in its development tooling.
What is all the disruption about? HTML5 promises to commoditize in a web standard what formerly required the use of proprietary plug-ins such as Flash or Silverlight, or native Objective C programming for Apple’s iOS mobile platform. Among the major highlights is support of:
• new audio and video tags that enable HTML developers to embed multimedia
• a choice of 2D rendering frameworks, including one supporting high-performance graphical applications like gaming, and vector graphics for content requiring pixel-level manipulation such as CAD/CAM engineering renderings
• a new geolocation tag for consuming GPS, IP address, and RFID data
• high-performance multi-threading capabilities for supporting background processing of compute-intensive tasks such as graphic rendering that are often required for rich applications, and for bidirectional (full-duplex) communications that will use TCP channels more efficiently
• offline support through capabilities such as caching of logic and local storage of data.
Consequently, web developers now have more options for designing RIA applications while staying within the standard.
HTML5 will not make proprietary frameworks obsolete
At first glance, HTML5 would appear to steal much of the thunder from proprietary frameworks and plug-ins. A closer look, however, reveals that HTML5 will not be a complete write-once, run-anywhere solution for RIA applications.
For instance, because the standards committees could not come to agreement, audio and video codecs are not part of the standard. Thanks to Apple’s and Microsoft’s support, H.264, a proprietary video codec that is currently the web’s most popular, will continue as the de facto standard in spite of opposition from Google and others.
Similarly, there has been no consensus for 3D tags, an issue that may grow more prominent if 3D films, bolstered by Avatar-inspired infatuation, become a core feature of digital entertainment. This presents a golden opportunity for Adobe Flash and Apple’s native iOS rendering environment. The same is true for digital rights management and for widgets and screen controls that provide useful items such as calendars. Other loose ends in HTML5 include the lack of consensus for parsing HTML and XML tags, a situation that could impact how search engines evaluate web pages.
Then there is the issue of browser implementation of standards. Ever since the days of HTML 2.0, there have been gaps in standards support among browsers, a situation that has caused developer headaches. That scenario will hardly end with HTML5. For instance, Microsoft, which has been very aggressive in supporting HTML5 in the new Internet Explorer 9 browser, has not yet announced support for the geolocation tag.
HTML5 is at the tip of the m-commerce iceberg
Behind all the vendors’ grand promises for support of HTML5 is a broader agenda that ventures far beyond support of any rendering engine.
As Microsoft Windows’ history proves, critical mass third-party content makes platforms indispensable. Apple proved the point with the iPod, whose success was established not only by device features but also by the iTunes Store, which provided the first viable licensed mass market for music downloads. With the iPhone and iPad, Apple seeks to emulate more of Microsoft’s formula by drawing a critical mass of developers – which in turn brings in applications and value-added content.
Consequently, seeing this as strictly a platform battle is a very IT-centric view that ignores the most important half of the story. At stake is control of the rapidly emerging world of m-commerce (mobile commerce). The core issue boils down to how applications and/or products gain access to potential customers who use specific mobile platforms, and who controls – and profits – from that access.
The success of Apple’s iTunes music store, the iPhone’s App Store, and more recently the iBooks bookstore reveals huge latent demand in consumer markets for buying products and services via mobile devices, and new kinds of products and services (e.g. location-based services) that are designed specifically for the mobile Internet experience. More importantly, by playing a gatekeeper role, Apple has not only been able to control what applications, content, and services are offered through its m-commerce marketplaces, but it also gets a cut of the revenue. In FY2010 Apple reported $4.1 billion in iTunes Store revenue, a 22 percent increase over the previous year. Although still a fraction of Apple’s $20 billion revenues, online store sales provide an annuity stream that will gradually increase its impact on the bottom line. No wonder Apple doesn't call itself Apple Computer anymore.
Consequently, it’s not surprising that Apple’s rejection of the Flash runtime for its devices is all about control of its m-commerce destiny. In a widely published, highly personal letter, Steve Jobs dismissed the Flash framework for a half dozen reasons that encompassed openness, access to the “full” web, security and performance, battery life, touch support, and most importantly, Apple losing control to third parties. Excluding the latter point, Adobe has redressed most of Jobs’ criticisms.
However, by controlling the runtime, Apple holds the trump card when it comes to handling mobile payments in markets where it hopes to play middleman. Apple’s position has been buttressed by the degree of control that Apple exerts over the iPhone environment, where it – not the carriers – dictate who controls the App Store and the look and feel of the iPhone itself (significantly, an opportunity that Google wasted with the Droid). Threatened by possible anti-trust action, Apple partially relented by allowing access to third-party utilities that could recompile Flash applications for the iPad or iPhone. Yet the rising stakes with m-commerce cast HTML5 in a role as a sort of DMZ (demilitarized zone) where mobile platform providers will have to deliver more than tacit support.
HTML5’s first opportunity will be in mobile
Ovum believes that HTML5 will initially gain momentum in mobile rather than traditional desktop environments. While desktop and laptop markets are mature, with growth decimated in most world regions by the recession, mobile is booming. In the US alone, Ovum predicts, mobile phone penetration (a superset of smartphones) will hit 107 percent by 2015.
Furthermore, for web applications, the smartphone mobile space is almost virgin territory. Before Apple introduced the iPhone, smartphones and other smart devices were a relatively modest presence, with platforms highly balkanized. Not surprisingly, Ovum’s annual mobile developer survey revealed that a large majority plan to continue developing apps for multiple platform targets; that creates a wide opportunity for a cross-platform development technology such as HTML5.
Even in the best of times, the enterprise market typically lags in adoption of new software platforms. Although enterprises typically refresh hardware every two to five years, it often takes longer for them to update corporate standards for OS platforms and software applications. Regardless of when or how often they are buying new machines, many enterprises are still relying on Windows XP, Microsoft Office 2003, and Internet Explorer 6. Don’t expect enterprise or B2B Flash web applications to disappear in the next three to five years.
By contrast, with mobile devices refreshed at a much faster rate, there will be an abundance of new, highly capable devices in consumer – and enterprise – hands. Consider the growth of Android phones, whose first commercial models have emerged only within the past year. Industry estimates show Droid model sales surpassing Apple in the US, although the battle is expected to tighten once the iPhone spreads to Verizon Wireless in 2011. Droid interest among developers was very evident in the Ovum mobile developer survey, even though it was conducted just after the first commercial models rolled out. Although Droid ranked as the fifth most popular development platform at the time, when developers were asked for their second choice, their top selection was Droid.
Such volatility amongst mobile targets creates golden opportunities for HTML5 as the obvious choice for developers seeking cross-platform applications where demand does not require the vividness of a native implementation. As long as developers remain realistic in expectations that each HTML5 implementation must be tweaked for its target, the future for HTML5 on mobile will be bright.
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