Mozilla: Don't Abandon Web For Native Mobile Apps

HTML5 isn't the problem. Hardware that hobbles Web code is, Firefox maker says.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 1, 2012

3 Min Read

Web apps have had suffered a few recent setbacks. Over the summer, social game developer Wooga said it was abandoning an HTML5 project because the technology was not there yet. And Facebook, with much fanfare, rewrote its iOS app using native iOS code rather than HTML5 to make it more responsive. In addition, the company's long-rumored mobile HTML platform known as Project Spartan remains unreleased, suggesting renewed appreciation for the benefits of native code.

During the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "I think the biggest mistake we made as a company is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native." Despite subsequent clarification that HTML5 isn't being abandoned, supporters of Web technology have felt the need to engage in damage control.

So it is that Mozilla wants to reassure developers and Internet users that the Web continues to be a compelling software platform and that the Web is a safe bet for future projects. In a blog post Thursday, Christian Heilmann, principal evangelist for HTML5 and the open Web, attempts to dispel what he sees as the myths about HTML5's potential and capabilities.

Heilmann likens native apps to tailored suits, because they're optimized but not flexible. He points out that native apps are tied into hardware-based business models: Software upgrades often require hardware upgrades, or vice versa. Web apps tend not to demand hardware upgrades. As an example, he cites Apple's iOS 6 update, which forced users to abandon the older Google-powered version of the iOS Maps app for a version that Apple itself has acknowledged is inferior.

[ Read Mozilla's Firefox OS Seeks Innovation Without Gatekeeping. ]

Web technology is competitive with native technology, or would be, Heilmann suggests, if hardware markers didn't put their fingers on the scales. "HTML5 applications are treated by mobile hardware developed for iOS and Android as second class citizens and don't get access to the parts that allow for peak performance," he observed.

This situation may not last much longer: Mozilla has proposed a set of Web APIs to standardize how Web apps can access hardware in a secure manner. The first devices to implement these APIs will be phones running Firefox OS, scheduled for release early next year. Whether Apple, Google and Microsoft want their mobile operating systems to treat Web apps as equals to native apps remains to be seen.

Heilman dismisses other misconceptions, such as the belief that Web apps can't be monetized. After pointing out the obvious -- that websites do make money in a variety of ways -- he poses a rhetorical question: Which strategy is better, he asks, "betting on one closed environment that can pull your product any time it wants, or distributing over a world-wide, open distribution network [that also provides access to] the closed shops as well?"

Heilmann misses one reason that developers have come to prefer native apps to Web apps: the slim possibility for free marketing support. Among iOS developers in particular, everyone hopes that Apple's reviewers will adore his or her app and feature it in a prominent place in the App Store, thereby ensuring widespread exposure and significant downloads. Favorable Google Play placement can also serve as effective marketing for Android app makers.

When you release an app on the Web, however, you're on your own. Maybe Mozilla's newly opened Firefox Marketplace will change that equation.

Web apps do have distinct advantages over native apps. As Heilmann points out, they can be written once and deployed anywhere, they can be shared easily with just a URL, they're built on multi-vendor standards, they can be easily updated and they can adapt to their environment through responsive design.

Back in 2009, Google's Vic Gundotra said, "The Web has won." Unfortunately, for those betting on the open Web, victory hasn't put an end to the fighting.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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