- Technical additions to the HTML standard that increase its functionality closer to that of native applications. In particular, the ability for offline data storage and access makes it possible to create a much more “app-like” experience than previously possible.
- The relative ease of development with HTML and other web technologies vs. native app development.
- The assumption that because it’s HTML, and fragmentation isn’t a particularly nasty issue on the desktop web, that it will ease cross-platform development and reduce fragmentation.
First, there are HTML5-specific app stores emerging, such as Zeewe, OpenAppMkt and the Premier App Shop. OpenAppMkt has gained some publicity as an alternative to iTunes for iOS users; discovery, download and payment are handled through a web browser, keeping the store within Apple’s guidelines, and apps are then saved to a device’s home screen as an icon.
Many stores support HTML5 apps through the W3C Widget or other standards with minor (or not so minor) differences. For instance, the WAC widget specs are converging with the W3C standard, while Nokia’s WRT implementation is slightly different. In other cases, such as with BlackBerry, a standard app needs to be put into a native app “wrapper” before it can be distributed.
This idea of a native wrapper is also used by some cross-platform tools, such as PhoneGap, to allow developers to build cross-platform apps using HTML5 and other web technologies, rather than porting native code. PhoneGap also adds the additional ability to take advantage of some device APIs and functionality, and outputs what appears to be a native application that can be distributed through normal means. Appcelerator’s Titanium has a similar output, but does something more akin to porting a web app to native code.
HTML5 certainly holds a lot of promise for mobile app developers while the gap between native and web development is growing ever smaller, and technical issues will continue to evolve and work themselves out. But the commercial concern for developers remains — will HTML5 apps mean a return to the pre-app store days, with difficult discovery and a tiny download and sales market?
The answer, of course, is a resounding no — such an outcome would not be in anybody’s interest. But two issues remain troublesome: the lack of clarity around the topic, and the morass of differing standards, wrappers and other mechanisms required for the wide (and cross-platform/operator/store) distribution of mobile web apps. Until web apps are able to offer an improvement, both commercially and technically, to native apps, their growth may remain stunted.