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Mobile developers agree: HTML5 and JavaScript apps fall short

An Embarcadero and Dimensional Research survey concludes that HTML5 and JavaScript apps still lacking when it comes to mobile development.

Though HTML5 and JavaScript are the standard programming languages for websites, they still leave something to be desired when it comes to mobile app development. A study conducted by Embarcadero and Dimensional Research concluded that 74% of its respondents -- 1,000+ Windows developers -- struggled to create mobile apps with HTML5 and JavaScript. Les Hazlewood, Java One speaker and CTO of Stormpath, explained, "If you want a fairly solid, lowest common denominator app, HTML5 and JavaScript is perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with that. If you want to take it to the next level and use device specific features, you're going to have to write a native application. It's just the way things are."

There are many factors that contribute to the favorability of native apps, but Luis Weir, director of Oracle Solutions at HCL technologies, argued that the one that underlies them all is user expectation. The mobile app has become the benchmark of all user interfaces because of the strength of its user experience. This has made it particularly difficult to develop a consumable app with HTML5 and JavaScript. "Everything is compared to an app nowadays. It's so simple to use. The capabilities are so rich, that even HTML5 hasn't been able to match it." Not only have Android and iOS created a dynamic, sophisticated and visually appealing standard, but their devices evolve at such a rapid pace, that HTML5 and JavaScript simply cannot compete.

Why HTML5 and JavaScript fall short

It seems counterintuitive, somehow, to favor the more complicated approach. After all, HTML5 and JavaScript are a standard, ready-made, tried-and-true method. They operate cross-platform and most developers have experience with the code. According to Diane Hagglund, principal researcher at Dimensional Research, the very problem with HTML5 and JavaScript is their simplicity: "HTML5/JavaScript is designed to be pretty quick and dirty. It can do things pretty easily and it's a nice, easy way to get cross-platform but there is no library, no device management capabilities, no tools, none of the things that a native app gives." The reason for this is that HTML5 and JavaScript were never intended for platform-specific development. Hazlewood explained that HTML5 was originally created for browsers, so the transition to a mobile environment, where device features are very specific, has been a bit awkward. "It's not part of its specification to access device features, so if you have an HTML5/JavaScript application, you have to assume that you're operating in a Web browser environment."

It's a different world for Windows developers.
Diane HagglundDimensional Research principal researcher

Scott Lachance, software test engineer at Hayward Industries, was one of Embarcadero's survey respondents. He explained that, from a developer perspective, applications that required complex features needed to be native to capitalize on a particular device's functionality. "People want to get to the accelerometers. They want to get to the Wi-Fi radio and control that. They want to get to the Bluetooth radio, GPS information. You can get to that to a certain degree, but it's nothing like a native app." Once again, it comes down to user expectation. According to John Thomas, director of product management at Embarcadero, users expect the Web browser to be slower than the mobile app. "If you're using a browser and you click on a link, the typical user knows there's going to be some latency because something needs to happen in the background. There's a built-in latency expectation. But that doesn't exist on mobile devices." While native apps can respond instantaneously to user demands, "those that have developed with HTML and JavaScript have found that that performance expectation wasn't met -- not because it had to go out to the Internet and pull information, but because it goes through many software layers in order to deliver." IOS has set a bar that makes latency unacceptable. When users have habituated to a device that reacts spontaneously to the touch, they will settle for nothing less.

Looking to the future

So the verdict is in: Native applications are essential for quality user experience. An overwhelming 85% of survey respondents agreed on this point. But a problem remains. Only 17% of these same respondents believe they can deliver native mobile applications for two or more platforms -- at least not with today's technology, Weir specified. "[The native app] creates challenges, because each framework, like the iOS framework, has to be different." Not only that, but native development requires a skill set of enormous diversity and scope as well as tools and services that still aren't advanced enough to develop across platforms. Hagglund spoke to this issue: "The tools aren't there yet. When you combine the number of platforms for mobile applications with significant device limitations, form factor, user expectation -- it's a different world for Windows developers."

The good news is that demand breeds opportunity, and in the mobile app sphere there is certainly no shortage of demand. As Thomas pointed out, the reason why developers are struggling at all is because there are so many opportunities. "There's huge potential for making money and for delivering apps that people are going to use because there are just billions and billions of devices out there." When asked if HTML5 and JavaScript could become a mobile-development standard, once it had become sophisticated enough, Thomas was doubtful that a standard of any kind would be possible in the mobile space. The reality is that standardization is financially unfavorable for companies like Apple and Microsoft, who have more to gain from cross-platform incompatibility. "In terms of tooling, I don't think [Apple and Microsoft] need to consider a standard or have an interest in finding a common way for people to support both their operating systems. There's a business advantage for them to keep that somewhat proprietary." It seems the responsibility lies with the developers to navigate this new and challenging market. They will be the ones to step out of their coding comfort zones and acquire the skills that mobile apps demand.

This was last published in October 2013

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Do you think HTML5 and JavaScript still have a place in mobile app development?
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Yes definitely. However there will always be an architectural decision on whether to use native mobile app capabilities or HTML5 / Javascript. May be we will see "hybrid" apps that use both. In fact I see value in both. I don’t think there will ever be a "silver bullet" single solution. At the end of the day, options are good so long that we go for the right one.
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because the HTML/5 and related technologies provide a write once deploy many where as the Native APPs don't.

the perceived speeds anointed to the natives apply when creating consumer apps but for the enterprise requiring reports, bi dashboards and quick access to databases, the HTML/5 related technologies are FAR BETTER suited than natives because of changes/updates and distribution. Once a centrally located HTML5 APP is deployed, all users get the SAME UPATED app. (period) and this is good for the enterprise....
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Standardisation is the reason. Time to market is key in today's software delivery process. And so, Professionals within the industry would eventually have to drive the use of HTML5
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Having played with both HTML5/JS mobile web apps and native apps, I do have to agree that the immediacy and the ability to interact with the hardware are much more compelling with the native apps. If the goal is to have something that will run on any device or platform, then the Mobile Web option is more of a positive.
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"Quick and dirty" --> "prototype", but "native app" --> "high-performance user experience"
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This article sums it up nicely. If you have light work to do on a mobile device, nothing more than marshaling data from your web service apps, HTML 5 is fine. If you are using device specific features or have complicated logic, native is the way to go... for now..
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I think for most enterprise business app needs HTML5 and JS should do.
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It's the future
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Likely we need html5/js mobile editions for mobile platforms.
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Great article. Totally agree. I will gladly eat my words in the future, but way things are:
"HTML5, should we just shoot you in the head today!!!!"
There is no place for the browser in the dog-eat-dog App world of mobile. More so when mission critical Enterprise apps are finally delivered

Thanks
Sohil
CEO, OpenMobster, Open Source MBaas Platform

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Mobile websites are gaining increasing popularity. In future the mobile web will dominate and best way to go is HTML5 and JavaScript way for cross platform support. Users will understand and accept that the latency exists just like in normal web sites.
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its easy and goood
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Web standards rock!!! HTML5 is the future, l see companies interested in native doing FUD to open standards as usual
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Since all platforms have support for Java, why is this not mentioned?
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HTML5 provides rich set of tags using which you can develope application which can be run on any platform.
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If you have infinite TIME, MONEY and access to SKILLED NATIVE DEVELOPERS, then I would agree to with you.

In the real world as we all know that is simply not the case and that explains why IDC, Forrester and Gartner surveys all show the increasing dominance of HTML5 (all are suggesting that over 80% of mobile business apps will be done in HTML5 by 2017.)

Why is this the case?

1) Apps increasingly have to run on the desktop and on mobile devices
2) HTML5, JavaScript and Css3 along with the browser are getting much better and faster.

An interesting article on this topic was written recently by Dan Bricklin about why HTML wins http://bricklin.com/howhtmlwins.htm
(It is important to note that Dan who co wrote VISICALC the first spreadsheet is no HTML moonie since he has written a best selling Objective C app for the ipad)

Another site worth checking out that relates to designing apps that can run optimally on web and mobile is www.responsiveappdesign.org)

Richard Rabins
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