Facebook last week rolled out an all-native Android app that it claims is twice as fast as the former hybrid, prompting TechCrunch to announce that the company’s “HTML5 app nightmare is over.” The launch follows Facebook’s move to abandon HTML5 in its iOS app, which resulted in App Store user reviews skyrocketing to four stars. Investing so much in HTML5 rather than native code was actually “the biggest mistake we that we made as a company ,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said following the release of the new iOS app, because the technology simply wasn’t ready for prime time.
But Facebook’s inability to build a solid HTML5-based mobile app can’t be solely blamed on technological shortcomings. Sencha illustrated that this week when it unveiled Fastbook, a kind of HTML5-based version of Facebook’s app for both iOS and Android devices. The “technology proof of concept” — as two members of Sencha’s engineering team describe Fastbook – is a rebuild of the original Facebook app that uses HTML5 to support “the most challenging parts.” Fastbook appears in this video demonstration to match the performance of Facebook’s new native apps in terms of speed and continuity through navigational features like scrolling, zooming and panning.
Many developers area heading toward HTML5, not away from it
Sencha is a developer creating an HTML5 framework and tools, so it obviously has a dog in this fight. But while Facebook moves away from HTML5 toward native code – for the moment, at least — there’s no shortage of developers and publishers heading the opposite direction. The European news outlet FinancialTimes.com recently said that its decision to focus on HTML5 rather than native has resulted in increased usage and revenues, and Mozilla is pouring resources into HTML5 development as it prepares for next year’s launch of Firefox OS. And a September study of developers by mobile apps tools vendor Kendo UI – which, like Sencha, has skin the game – found that 94 percent of respondents either were already using HTML5 or planned to use it by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the number of average mobile downloads per user around the world won’t increase substantially over the next several years as web-based apps begin to take hold, ABI Research recently predicted. Many of the coming HTML5-based apps are likely to be news and magazine apps, ABI said, which are highly popular among smartphone users but don’t require the immersive user experience of, say, intense games – which require the kind of user experience HTML5 is still ill-equipped to support.
No simple answers
It’s impossible to pinpoint a single reason why Facebook couldn’t develop a workable, HTML5-based apps for mobile use, although this post from The Register persuasively argues that the problem “may lie more with the craftsman than with the tools.” And as this recent post from VentureBeat documents, Facebook’s struggles weren’t the only reason HTML5 development failed to live up to expectations in 2012.
But there’s no denying that HTML5 is slowly gaining momentum in the mobile developer community, and it is sure to build on that momentum next year. Positioning HTML5 as an immediate threat to native apps is wrongheaded and short-sighted, however: As I’ve written before, any talk of a “battle” between the two strategies is artificial. Savvy developers and publishers will decide what they’re trying to accomplish, using HTML5 to minimize development costs when appropriate and leveraging native code to deliver the best possible user experience. And those who are really paying attention will take a lesson from Facebook’s failings to make the best use of HTML5 every chance they get.