Mobile application development: MIT panelists say HTML5 will lag native approaches

There are hopes that HTML5 will ease mobile device development soon. But at the 2012 MIT Hi-Tech Conference, game developers said it will take time.

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The sea change in commerce continues, spurred by the popularity of the Web and driven further by unfolding new technologies. Among these new drivers are mobile applications, online payment systems and big data - all present and accounted for last week at MIT’s Sloan School Hi-Tech Conference in Cambridge, Mass. The sea change comes with its issues, of course.

For some, mobile application development issues are foremost. The Smartphone is expanding consumers’ connections to enterprises and commerce. But development skills are still short and platform fragmentation is rampant.

Although a Web browser can run on phones, it seldom can easily tap into the mobile devices’ embedded capabilities. Mobile aficionados on a panel at the MIT conference said development native to individual devices will excel versus Web-based alternatives for some time to come. That is the case despite Web browser improvements based on HTML5 approaches.

“There are distinct advantages to native now,” said panelist Sean Kelly, vice president of mobile games, Zynga, San Francisco, Calif. “From a game point of view, the problem is in the APIs that HTML5 does not support. There are APIs in HTML5 that just don’t exist.”

Kelly cited global positioning system (GPS) technology and video processing as just two of many capabilities that native device operating systems handle better than HTML5-based browsers. The HTML5 community, which is focused greatly on JavaScript, is playing catch up, especially as it moves to support multimedia on mobile devices.

“Today, you have to build it yourself. Dynamic, high-frame rate HTML5 is just not viable,” said Kelly.

Early popular mobile applications often exploit the unique characteristics of the mobile device. That is true in electronic gaming, and beyond. 

Will HTML5 catch up? No, said MIT panel participant Eli Schleifer.

“Every time there is an abstraction layer, it’s slowing things down. JavaScript is a general language. It’s a dream, but for [applications] that are cutting edge, it’s never coming together,” said Schleifer, a long-time Microsoft mobile device architect and developer, and now founder of Directr (sic), a start-up based in Cambridge, Mass.

The HTML5 route seems favorable to application development managers. They have often been down the road of multiple platform support before.

When the Web browser became the near-universal client, it reduced the need to develop to multiple platforms. But, as in the days when applications had to be ported to each Unix variety, today the mobile application space requires teams to write to various operating systems, if they are looking to exploit embedded mobile device capabilities. 

MIT panel member Schleifer sees the universal approach promised by HTML5 as something of a dream.

“I think everyone wants it to catch up, but I don’t think HTML5 and JavaScript are ever going to catch up to native alternatives,’’ he said. “People will keep talking about it. But in the end, companies won’t care. Companies care about building products that work. You know what you want your product to be, and then you figure out the best way to do it. ”

“You can never start out with the conclusion you are ‘going to do this in HTML5.’ You might get stuck with a technology that doesn’t work,” said Schleifer.

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