Magazine Article | July 25, 2012

HTML5 Levels The Mobile Playing Field

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

What impact will HTML5 have on native applications?

One ongoing challenge in mobile application development has been supporting multiple, often quickly changing, platforms. Each new software app not only has to stay current with new versions of each mobile operating system, but the potential introduction of new platforms in the enterprise (like Android or iOS) could mean that each application has to be developed in multiple versions.

HTML5, the markup language set to supplant previous versions of the HTML standard, will change that. While the still-in-development standard will introduce a number of improvements, the one that should most interest companies with mobile computing solutions is the ability to develop an application once and have it run on any platform. It will also improve multimedia/video/ audio support, since it eliminates the need for Flash or Silverlight plug-ins. “HTML5 has really begun to solidify its position among app developers due to the ability to reuse code and reapply programming skills across projects,” says Zack Bergreen, CEO of Astea International. “Businesses want to maximize return on investment. Creating the same application multiple times is an untenable software development model for business.”

HTML5 Simplifies Mobile Device Selection

That will not only simplify software development and management, but also remove barriers to device selection. Companies will no longer have to validate software solutions with existing or new devices. “In today’s increasingly bring-your-own-device (BYOD) world, HTML5 makes enterprise deployments a more feasible choice for organizations that support multiple device platforms,” says Dave Miller, vice president of business solutions development at Vertical Solutions. “IT departments don’t want to encourage a BYOD environment, but it is the new reality. Users are buying their own devices and want to use them. While HMTL5 applications enable this behavior, they also simplify the deployment of applications across the enterprise.”

HTML5 arrives as interest increases in moving away from native applications to browser-based solutions, especially while many field service and sales organizations are deploying Android and iOS-based smartphones. With HTML5, companies could support different devices for different roles/uses on the same application, without having to worry about device interoperability. “At a time when there is no one clear winner in the mobile space, and employees are bringing their own personal devices, companies prefer to go with a solution that doesn’t tie them down to one or two mobile operating systems or devices,” says Gil Bouhnick, director of mobility at ClickSoftware. “People seem to forget sometimes that HTML5 is not a mobile technology — it’s much bigger than just mobile and therefore can help organizations build one unified strategy across all mobile devices, plus supporting Windows and desktops. That’s a huge value to IT without compromising on usability and functionality.”

HTML5 Still In Development

In addition to the cross-platform functionality, HTML5 also lets developers take advantage of other enhancements, like smarter form controls, APIs, client-side database support, faster processing, and memory. It also provides offline capabilities, so that Web-based applications can run like their native counterparts. “It’s important to understand that HTML5 is not just an improvement over traditional HTML,” Miller says. “It works in concert with newer Web technologies and incorporates or even enhances tried-and-true tools, including improved style sheets (CSS), integrated local databases, multiple APIs, and the ability to cache entire documents locally.”

There will be other benefits to the adoption of HTML5 as well. It will be easier to integrate multimedia and graphical content without using Flash or other third-party plug-ins. That means it will be easier to add video, animation, and high-quality drawings (potentially even 3D models or equipment schematics) in mobile applications. HTML5 also allows developers to create geolocation apps directly in the browser and make the location data available to any HTML5-compatible browser regardless of how the location information was generated (i.e. GPS hardware, cell tower triangulation, IP address, or wireless network connection).

Caution: Testing Of HTML5 Is Crucial

Although companies are already working with HTML5, it is still under development. The World Wide Web (W3C) has announced a completion date of 2014, although the “last call” version announced in 2011 included all of the planned features. So while most of the spec is compatible with Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera, there are versions of Internet Explorer that don’t support it. Any rollout of an HTML5-compatible application should involve field testing on every device involved, particularly with Android devices, since some incompatibilities may affect the user interface. “Despite HTML5’s so-called OS/browser neutrality, it’s important to note that one size does not fit all,” Miller says. “Standards are still evolving. Even on the same OS, various browsers will manifest their own characteristics that can impact the operation and appearance of your apps.”

According to Bouhnick, there are also weaknesses in the native integration of hardware tools such as camera, files, and push notifications. “Those are things that are partially supported by Android, while not supported by iOS,” Bouhnick says. “The way to resolve those gaps is to use native containers, which we sometime use, but we try to keep it to the minimum possible, as we believe that there will be other alternatives in the future [new containers or new generations of Web browsers]. Things like GPS are already supported by HTML5, and I believe that within time other missing capabilities will become part of the standard.”

Because it is device/OS-agnostic, HTML5 will theoretically make mobile device selection and application development much easier; once an application is developed, it could run on almost any mobile platform without modification. That not only frees companies to choose from a wider variety of devices, but also reduces the cost of development. “HTML5 will not encourage the use of any particular mobile OS as much as it will not discourage the use of one over the other,” Miller says. “This subtle difference gives corporations the ability to freely evaluate multiple mobile platforms without limitations imposed by their choice of application. HTLM5 enables them to make a choice based on their own criteria.”

It doesn’t support all devices, but will support most Android devices, iOS devices, Blackberry, and Windows Phone/Mobile devices. It could also encourage adoption of Android in enterprise line-of-business applications, which have traditionally been written with some flavor of Windows in mind. “We have already seen the increased interest in non-Windows platforms, and we expect that to continue to grow,” Bergreen says. “Many end users already have a personal device that is either Android or iOS, so if enterprises adopt applications that work with those operating systems, the user adoption will be that much greater. If anything, HTML5 will make device selection a nonissue when it comes to finding the right software
to solve their needs.”

Eventually, the vendors interviewed for this story think that HTML5 may spell the end for many native applications as field service organizations embrace browserbased solutions. Although native applications have some advantages (in that they might provide some more robust functionality), HTML5 offers more device flexibility and facilitates screen and process changes without vendor involvement. “My view is that just like back-office tools shifted from native technologies to Web, the same will happen with the mobile world; native will quickly turn into Web,” Bouhnick says. “The mobile Web is already very popular among developers, and in the enterprise this trend will grow even further. The user experience can stay [almost] the same as in native apps, and for IT, it means a much easier deployment path and better control over the solution.”