[HTML5 has been tipped to be a game-changer, with some predictiving it will take over most mobile platforms. But what is its real impact to the mobile industry? VisionMobile Research Director Andreas Constantinou evaluates HTML5 vs apps and what it means for the mobile industry as part of our newly released report – free copy here]
Background: Web vs. apps
In today’s world of apps, the web seems to have taken a seat in the back row. But many industry observers are predicting a comeback with HTML5 advancements, the proliferation of smartphones and ubiquitous backing by both telcos and Internet players. Is the web as we know it about to change?
First things first: what is the web?
Secondly, the web is a paradigm for open, unfettered access to content that is not controlled by any single entity. In the era where apps distribution is controlled by single vendors like Apple and Google, the web seems to challenge the status quo.
There are many ways in which web pages differ from mobile apps today, as shown in the next table.
From web 1.0 to the mobile web
The web has gone through two major phases: Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.
Web 1.0 was the era of the dumb terminals and static web pages. The first generation of the web assumed all intelligence was in the network; the device had to issue a simple request to fetch a page and then present it on the screen.
Web 2.0 was is the era of smarter terminals and interactive pages. This second generation was designed around the â€˜read-write web’ where the user is not just a consumer but also an editor, curator and producer of content. Web 2.0 helped create today’s phenomena of Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and nano-publishing.
Despite starting off as an outsider to the web, the mobile industry has been rapidly catching up since the early WAP days. WebKit, the Apple-born browser engine is now the common â€˜circuitry’ behind more than 500 million devices shipped to Q1 2011, by all major smartphone vendors. Opera, the mobile browser vendor, counts over 100 million monthly active users on its Mobile and Mini browsers.
In the manufacturer camp, smartphones are expected to reach well into sub-$100 retail price points in 2011. In the operator camp, content delivery optimization solutions from the likes of ByteMobile, Openwave, and Ortiva Wireless are being deployed across tier-1 operators, facilitating efficient use of the network while browsing the web.
Mobile industry initiatives such as the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) are pushing the envelope for web applications (also known as widgets) while EU-funded initiatives like webinos aim to use the web as a medium for deploying applications across mobile, PC, TV and automotive screens.
HTML5 as a technology change
The hype surrounding HTML5 has peaked in 2011. HTML5 promises to push the capabilities of web applications to the point of making web apps as engaging as Flash applications and as integrated with the device as mobile applications. HTML5 introduces several technology improvements in these domains by adding off-line storage, 2D graphics capabilities, video/audio streaming, geo-location, access to the phone’s camera and sensors, as well as user interface tools.
This next generation of web languages in the form of HTML5 is being standardized by the W3C and the WHAT working group who are driving forward web apps as equal citizens to mobile applications. The W3C consists of 51 member organizations, over 440 participants with strong backing from Google, Apple, Opera, IBM, Microsoft, and Mozilla. In parallel the WHAT working group is working closely with Mozilla, Opera and WebKit who are implementing and testing the latest browser features.
Yet HTML5 is still work in progress and even standards bodies show fragmented approaches to HTML5 completion. The W3C expects official completion of the HTML5 set of standards in 2014. In parallel, WHAT has taken a different approach to completion and is now working on â€˜HTML’ as a continually evolving set of specifications.
Despite the adoption of the WebKit engine as a de-facto standard, HTML5 implementation on mobile devices is both fragmented and incomplete.
Independent studies by quirksmode.org and NetBiscuits have shown that every mobile WebKit implementation is slightly different. In addition, the leading smartphone platforms show inadequate HTML5 support; iOS, BlackBerry OS and Android devices show partial HTML5 support (at best 2 our of 3 HTML5 features supported), while Symbian and Windows Phone devices are lagging further behind.
Much like history has shown with the PC browser wars of the 1990’s and the Java ME fragmentation of the 2000’s, mobile browser fragmentation in 2010’s will be driven by the need to differentiate (’embrace and extend’), and the varying speeds among vendors in implementing the latest WebKit engine.
What about HTML5 app stores? Already a number of start-ups such as OpenAppMkt, Openspace and Zeewe have proposed app stores focused on web apps. The key advantages of HTML5 app stores are cross-device portability and a buy-once-use- everywhere application model.
Unfortunately, supply does not always imply demand; HTML5 app stores can’t deliver a business model change if demand is not there, for three reasons. Firstly, users care about availability of popular content (see Angry Birds, Skype and Facebook) most of which are not available as web apps often due to HTML technology limitations. Secondly, users care about choosing among hundreds of thousands of apps, which is currently a 2-horse race (Apple and Google) with the web lagging far behind in terms of number of apps. Thirdly, users are becoming loyal to their smartphone platform (Android, iOS or BlackBerry) where the native app store dominates.
How to compete in a software world
HTML5 introduces several technology innovations. However HTML5 remains a technology change that is not designed to solve discovery, distribution or monetisation problems – in other words it is not designed to change the business model.
What *will* be changing the business model of the web are the innovations introduced in the apps economy – where content is created with semantic tagging (description, category, user ratings, etc), discovered via web stores (much like app stores), distributed within walled gardens (much like Facebook), and monetised through micro-payments (much like apps). We call this web 3.0 – and we expand on its implications in the full research paper.
The question is: how can the mobile industry leverage on the web, and the native platforms that dominate the apps world? The trick here is not to compete, but to leverage on the network effects of the Apple, Google and Microsoft platforms where handset OEMs or network operators can position themselves as a new generation of over-the-top players.
For example, operators can act as the matchmakers between developers and end-users by helping developers get the right apps in front of the right users through techniques such as featured placements, social- graph-based recommendations and segment targeting. Similarly, handset OEMs can act as on-device retailers, connecting the developers to the right audience, in the right region, through white space across the handset real-estate.
This is also where we believe WAC has the best chances of success but helping operators reposition as over-the-top players on top of the Android and Apple app stores – that is by helping developers reach out to users with ubiquitous billing, quality assurance, content curation, local content deals, privacy and security assurance, and help extend app stores away from the virtual and into the physical retail space.
No matter how telecoms players decide to compete in the software world, they need to adopt â€˜agile’ development methods and move at software speeds to catch-up the platform players in controlling the last mile to the consumer.
One thing is certain; the future of connected web and devices is going to surprise us – much like how applications turned telecoms economics upside down. Like Bill Gates once famously said “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.
Web is going to be a game changer, but not in the way we expect it.
Read our full report for more.
– Andreas you should follow me on Twitter: @andreascon