HTML5: not ready for primetime, but getting very close

December 3, 2010: 12:57 PM ET

Companies and developers say it's the future. A look at why the HTML5 hype machine is in overdrive and whether it's warranted.

Given how tech giants like Apple, Google and even Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) have wholeheartedly embraced HTML5 and dubbed it the future of the web, it's no surprise the hype behind the quickly-emerging web specification has reached a fevered pitch. And the hubbub will get even louder now, with the just-launched Chrome 8 browser and possible announcement of the Chrome OS web store at All Things Digital's D: Dive Into Mobile conference next week.

Authored by Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) employee Ian Hickson, HTML5 promises to be the "genes" from which much of the next generation web will spring to life: web sites, content, and web-based apps could be partially or wholly coded with it. In terms of web video, that's already starting to happen. A recent survey from MeFeedia showed that 54% of web video is now available for playback in HTML5; back in January, that number was a meager 10%.

Chalk that quick adoption rate up primarily to the release of Apple's iPad, (NASDAQ:AAPL) which has sold upwards of 7 million units since its April launch and could move as many as 21 million more next year. Developers are obviously excited about getting in on those sales, but they're also eager to work with an easily-accessible web standard that could be more power-efficient and offer smoother performance than say, Flash.

One of HTML5's biggest sells is its flexibility. Regardless of what device a site or app shows up on -- iPhone, Android tablet, desktop, laptop, all of which have decidedly different form factors -- developers can use almost the exact same code for each platform, cutting down on the time, effort and manpower currently required by many mobile app developers to program native apps the crowded mobile OS market.

Sports Illustrated (a Time Inc. publication like Fortune) revealed a browser-viewable HTML5-driven version at the Google I/O conference earlier this year, which approached the responsiveness and interactivity of its native iPad app. Other outlets continue to tinker with HTML5, writing coded versions of the magazine that will be wrapped in a native app "shell" so they can sell them at platform app stores and reuse them for other platforms.

Users also stand to benefit. They won't have to launch dedicated iPad or iPhone apps from say, ABC, just to watch their favorite shows -- they'll watch content right inside their browsers instead. Other perks? Geolocation, a feature popularized by apps like Foursquare that lets a service ID your location if you want it to; dragging-and-dropping of items from the desktop to the browser (and vice versa); faster web site loading using the computer's graphics chip; and use of in-browser apps offline -- a major boon for casual gamers. (Earlier this year, Google also showed off just how nifty HTML5 can look and behave even when commerce isn't at the forefront, with an Arcade Fire demo site combining Google maps, user input and layering of visual data.)

The mobile/browser/OS landscape

As the mobile OS space becomes increasingly crowded, mobile developers with small staffs have expressed interest in perhaps designing one-size-fits-all in-browser web-based apps that provide mobile users experiences comparable to native applications, or apps designed specifically for a platform like iOS. In a recent interview, Alphonso Labs, the makers of the popular Pulse News Reader admitted they'd explore such an option down the line, given the recent introduction of Windows Phone 7.

"We're really constrained by the law of demand as app developers," said Alphonso Labs co-founder Akshay Kothari. "Eventually we want to be cross-platform, but at the same time, I think it'll be very hard for our company to have say, five different apps that you want to support completely."

While HTML5 could be one viable way to solve that problem, Faruk Ates, a creative design and web consultant who worked at Apple for three years thinks HTML5 and its related technologies still have some growing to do.

"Performance is getting much better, but it's still miles behind native applications, especially on mobile devices," says Ates. "An iOS native Objective-C/CocoaTouch application can outperform a web app doing the same thing by up to 100 times. That's a big gap for people wanting to use web technologies to make really great applications."

Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond agrees. While Hammond believes HTML5 will play a big role in shaping the web's future, he thinks it'll some time, perhaps years, before HTML5 can capably handle more rigorous tasks like transactional apps -- apps that process lots of data -- like say, video editing.

"If you have a browser that's enabled, I think it can rival apps with simpler tasks, but it's going to be a couple of years before they can handle large data sets, before they're able to handle low-latency type situations, before they're really able to do the types of local storage that we see some native apps doing," he says. Long term, the sky's the limit for HTML5, but until processing and bandwidth catch up with it, right now it's more suited for widgets, mapping, some complex 2-D manipulations from a drawing perspective. Keep in mind when analysts and developers talk "long term" in the computer business, they tend to be thinking on the order 12-18 months.

Solving the practical issues

In that respect, HTML5 is already where it needs to be. Public projects like Google's e-book, 20 Things I Learned About Browsers and the Web, and the elegantly-designed time zone app, Every Time Zone, shows just how fast and appealing such a web-based experience can be.

Another niggling issue companies and developers will run up against could be monetization. While iTunes and Android Marketplace keep the barriers of entry few and low for native apps, there's no such comparable model in place for web-based apps. That could all change when Google introduces its Chrome OS store, long-planned to function like iTunes and Android Marketplace, establishing a hub where Chrome and Chrome OS users can discover and potentially buy HTML5-driven Web applications. Given this week's release of the Chrome 8 browser, which is the first browser to support the Chrome OS store, and the keynote address by Android creator Andy Rubin at the D: Dive into Mobile conference, it's entirely possible the Chrome OS store could emerge as soon as next week.

Revenue, once a large hurdle for any emerging web technology or service, seems to be the one problem that HTML5 doesn't have to worry about. iOS and Android have already proven, with the help of  social gaming, that users are comfortable making in-app purchases. Farmville-maker Zynga, which uses a free-to-play model and pulls revenues primarily from selling virtual goods, is expected to pull in $450 million in sales this year, primarily from in-game virtual goods. And it's not a fluke. According to Flurry Analytics, social gaming developers make somewhere between $14 and $20 per free-to-play user per year on iOS alone thanks to primarily to virtual goods purchases.

Juniper meanwhile estimates that by 2013 revenue sources will flip, with in-app purchasing becoming the dominant revenue generator in social gaming. HTML5-driven web apps will surely take advantage of users' comfort level with purchasing both in-browser and in-app, meaning that friction over genearting revenue, for once, is a problem content providers and app developers won't face. And with the new technologies, even apps that don't have internal transactions will surely take advantage of the code's enhanced features to deploy more innovative advertising campaigns.

So long as HTML5 continues to attract developer interest and its feature set matures -- all signs indicate that will happen -- the web specification is poised to really be the one to rule them all.

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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