Interest in HTML5-based apps breeds new cottage industries



Developers have long complained of the fractured nature of mobile app development, requiring them to rebuild apps for each specific mobile platform they want to target. And although Apple's iOS and Google's Android cover 90 percent of the mobile market, even just Android is a puzzle. For example, 28.6 percent of Android users are running Ice Cream Sandwich, 16.6 percent are using Jelly Bean and 44.1 percent are using Gingerbread. HTML5 has been touted as the solution--a way to create content once and publish everywhere, giving users the content they want on whatever device they are using.

However, there are still problems with implementing certain types of apps in HTML5. For one, HTML5 has its own fragmentation issues to deal with: Chrome, Safari, Firefox and other browsers support different HTML5 features. In mobile the same problems emerge.

Further, mobile app developers agree that HTML5 can only support the most basic functions and not high-powered games and other complex apps.

So it's not surprising that a cottage industry of businesses has sprouted up help developers and mobile content providers bring their apps to a wider audience. I spoke to two players in this market, Sencha CEO Michael Mullany and Ludei President Joe Monastiero, about how their respective companies work to make it easier for developers to build HTML5 apps. "What we want is ubiquitous distribution. We want the world to be able to take a single project and deliver that everywhere," said Monastiero.

Ludei is a development and publishing company that helps developers port HTML5 games and apps to the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store or Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play. The company offers its CocoonJS, which essentially adds an acceleration technology to HTML5 games that Ludei said allows the games to run as quickly and as smoothly as if they were built natively. The company's CocoonJS is then combined with the developer's HTML5 code in an app wrapper that can then be sold through Google Play and the App Store. "We give the developers that want to sell a cupcake or a strawberry the ability to do that with a single API," Monastiero said.

While Ludei focuses on HTML5 gaming, Sencha works more with enterprise-grade apps. "The notion that you can write your applications in HTML5 and no matter what platform becomes popular, whether it's Tizen or Firefox OS or Windows Phone 8, your app investment is safe, which is really appealing especially to enterprises," said Mullany.

Mullany explained that Sencha and companies like it are seeing businesses increasingly interested in mobile Web development. He said that companies that spent time and money creating apps for BlackBerry 5 or BlackBerry 6 don't want to go through that entire process again for a new operating system. Similarly, companies with BYOD programs that invested in iOS apps do not want to redevelop their apps when employees begin coming in with Android devices.

However, Mullany explained that there are still certain things that companies like Sencha can't help developers do natively. For example, he said HTML5-based apps still can't easily access a device's NFC capabilities. HTML5 apps also can't easily display 3D content.

Both men agreed that one thing developers need to understand is that currently Web and native apps just aren't in the same place today. Mullany noted that "the Web platform tends to lag native by a couple years," while Monastiero said "objectively, in 2-3 years, there's no reason that Web can't be on the same footing as native." Monastiero guessed that CocoonJS (including its APIs) will be relevant for that timespan.

The gap between native and Web apps is closing. As mobile browsers become more sophisticated and powerful, users will be able to use HTML5-based apps for an increasing number of purposes. If in two years HTML5 apps reach the level of sophistication that native apps are at now, then who knows what types of features native apps themselves will have by then? HTML5 apps have a shot if they can find a way to exceed the capabilities of native apps, not just match them.--Sandhya