News media should watch the tug-o-war between HTML5 and native apps


It used to be that holy wars were actually about religion. Now it seems the religious battles are more common among technology faithfuls.

God, I’ve seen some nasty things; best friends almost getting into a fist fight about the pros and cons of NFC.

Of course, Steve Jobs — always Steve Jobs — was the one who brought a religious dimension to putting hardware and software together. If you’ve seen the documentary “MacHeads,” you can’t argue with the cult-like worship of technology. Some of the people interviewed in “MacHeads” admit they pray to Steve Jobs.

But right now the holiest of the holy battles seems to be about native apps versus HTML5. This is religious warfare I think news media companies should pay attention to.

It’s a crusade where the momentum appears to have shifted. If you follow the INMA coverage of mobile and tablets, you’ve already seen it:

The ongoing battle was very present at the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. In one of the sessions, Calvin Carter, president and founder of Bottle Rocket Apps, preached the gospel of native apps in a way that would make any preacher envious:

“You should go native … I’m here to tell you, that this road to the panacea of ‘build once and deploy all over the place’ is littered with shipwrecks,” he said.

Carter didn’t shy away from the fact that his business is founded on building native apps. And that, I think, is one of the key issues for news media companies to keep things in perspective:

  • The app industry is one of the fastest-growing businesses ever. When Apple launched its App Store, it took a mere 31(!) months to reach 10 billion downloads. As a comparison, despite the enormous success, iTunes needed 67 months to reach that number.

  • Recent figures from Apple say more than 500,000 apps are in the App Store for the iPhone — and more than 700,000 when apps for the iPad are included. Google Play claims 600,000 apps for Android. And Windows Phone is said to have 100,000 apps in its marketplace.

  • The mobile application market is estimated to be worth approximately US$20 billion. It has created between 400,000 and 600,000 jobs, and is predicted to top US$100 billion by 2015, according to research by ACT and Microsoft TechNet.

  • HTML5 is an emerging technology, not even standardised yet. It has the potential of being disruptive to the mobile apps ecosystem.

  • A recent study from Bernstein Research predicts that adoption of HTML5 Web apps could cut Apple’s profit growth by 30%.

“The primary beneficiaries will be Microsoft and Google and their OEMs (original equipment manufactures),” Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst at Forrester Research, told PC World. “Examples of companies taking this approach include LinkedIn, Salesforce, the Financial Times and Amazon. There are many others, as well.” 

Thus huge conflict of interests equals warfare.

During Mobile World Congress in February, the HTML5 phalanx was on offense. The HTML5 app of the Financial Times was awarded Best Mobile Innovation for Publishing. And Bret Taylor, then CTO of Facebook, advocated open Web solutions in his keynote presentation.

After Facebook’s failure with its HTML5 app (Mark Zuckerberg commented on the company’s mobile missteps: “The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5 instead of native.”), the native tribe is counter-striking.

Amidst this crossfire, Rob Grimshaw gave a very sobering perspective at the Open Mobile Summit: “The Financial Times has had a great experience over the past year with HTML5. It has done tremendous things for our business,” he kicked off.

Last year, FT stepped out of the App Store at a time when every media company in the world was rushing into the arms of Apple. The issue was Apple taking a 30% commission on subscription revenues and retaining ownership of billing and login information and email addresses.

That move proved to be a great success for

  • From May 2011 to May 2012, the audience has grown 77 %.

  • 13% of advertising revenue is generated from mobile.

  • 10% to 15% of digital subscriptions are obtained through smartphone and tablet offerings.

“We’ve now reached a fabulous milestone, which is hitting 300,000 paying digital subscribers,” Grimshaw said. “It means we have more digital subscribers than print circulation.” 

He explained the essentials of a great commercial app — it is not just made up of what you see on the screen. You must:

  • Have good monetisation through ad servers or through sign-up and billing.

  • Solve things like authentication.

  • Figure out personalisation, content management, analytics.

“The advantage of the native environment is that a lot of these things have been sorted out. Everything is off the shelf,” he said. “The HTML5 world is not that simple at the moment.”

His conclusion was three very straightforward questions:

  • What is HTML5 good at? Cross-platform development. “Since we’ve put together the Web app, our mobile developing process has become a lot more simple and straightforward.”
  • What is it bad at? Advertising. “This is the thing that has caused us the biggest single headache with HTML5. Online and in some native environments, a lot of things have been standardised. But with HTML5, many of the tools that you need to make advertising work simply aren’t there.”
  • Why bother if HTML5 is a challenge to work with? “What this is about is the open Web versus the closed Web. Does it matter if we have to go through intermediaries to reach our customers? I think it does. In a closed environment the rules and the shape of the playing field are determined by the owner of the platform.

    “When you look at the revenues that players like Apple, Google, or Amazon are generating from the platform, you can see the huge advantage the platform owner has. I don’t think that’s a restriction we want to live with.”
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