HTML5 vs native applications: The debate

By Tim Murphy

The growth and evolution of HTML has introduced many new capabilities for web developers to optimise the mobile experience, but to properly evaluate the significance of these changes, a comparison needs to be drawn between HTML5 and the traditional native, downloadable mobile application. Only then can a company truly understanding the opportunities and risks it is taking with its mobile strategy.

HTML5: the advantages

Online video will account for 90 percent of internet traffic within the next few years, according to Cisco. At its core, HTML5 was developed to support online video without requiring third-party plugins. This means that browsers will be able to play video without the help of additional programmes (which are generally expensive) and without worrying about slow loading or crashing of the browser.

Local storage and offline applications are another large consideration. Once you download an HTML5 website, the entire webpage data is stored in the local browser database. HTML5 supports storing large amounts of data for large periods of time, and then retrieving it even when the device is offline. Having this information stored locally would give users the ability to access the information while on the go without the need to have a continuous internet connection.

Geo-location is another factor that benefits from HTML5 development, especially on mobile. HMTL5 enables geo-location by using the GPS coordinates identified by your phone. Retailers, cinemas and other businesses that utilise location mapping can use this function to determine a user’s location, without them manually entering it. In this case, the browser quickly gives organisations access and the ability to cater to convenient user features like check-ins, locations and location-based advertisements. As the mobile evolution continues, geo-location will be able to provide location specific content and will also help users quickly navigate the area they are in – improving the overall user experience.

Native apps: the comparison

For offline browsing or user specific content, native apps allow users to tap into these areas quickly: they provide a better user experience, being more interactive, and delivering a richer graphical interface, especially for games, videos and graphics. Furthermore, everything is located in the device that the user is already interacting with, rather than it needing to grab information from afar.

Although the app-centric content delivery strategy can be expensive for development, as it requires multiple builds and multiple skill sets when designing for different operating systems, the user experience will be feature rich, and may offer better quality and detail to mobile users. That said, HTML5 is catching up, and while at the beginning of its trajectory, native-like experiences are now being developed via HTML5. Canvas drawing for example, is a feature that allows web developers to make websites more interactive, faster and easier to access, creating an app-like experience for the mobile user, without the complexity of multiple developments.

Finally, in terms of promoting the app, searchability and discoverability is critical. For a native app, this means continual investment in promotion to ensure mobile users find it, whereas with a website, users can be seamlessly updated.

What’s the solution?

If a company needs to choose between an app or the web to launch their mobile strategy, a website with HTML5 will provide many advantage for quickly reaching the largest potential audience. While HTML5 lets companies consolidate their development efforts, it does have some drawbacks if it’s not implemented correctly. Not every device supports HTML5 in the same way for example, and it is paramount that companies understand how applications run on different devices and browsers.

When designing and developing HTML5 companies need to test that the functionality performs as expected. For those without a large library of devices lying around this could prove difficult at first, although there is an option of cloud-based resources that allow companies to remotely acquire devices based on testing requirements. Additionally, desktop device emulators are a relatively inexpensive way to test site performance and they are also capable of providing detailed feedback at the code-level.

It is critical to invest in testing tools that give continual insight into the performance of a mobile site; this will involve determining the use cases that are critical to the end user experience, creating a robust test script, and continual checking ensure that the HTML5 functionality is behaving as expected. Modern mobile web testing solutions are also capable of alarming operators when attention is required. Unlike maintaining multiple versions of apps, the single HTML5 mobile website is being shared by all users and when failures occur organisations can address these in one fell swoop.

HTML5 presents an effective and efficient way to develop a company’s mobile strategy, but before taking the plunge, organisations need to realise that employing HTML5 requires a level of commitment to take full advantage of its capabilities. A team of people is needed to understand the benefits and limitations of HTML5, how to make them work for your mobile strategy, and how to ensure that your mobile user experience lives up to expectations. If done correctly, this commitment is likely to pay dividends in the future.

About the author:

As the Sr. Marketing Manager for Mobile Testing at Keynote Systems, Tim Murphy is an evangelist for improving the end user experience on mobile websites, applications and networks. His responsibilities include the customer and corporate communication of mobile performance improvement and insight. He also works on developing strategic partnership and awareness among key markets including the enterprise, infrastructure providers and network operators.

Before joining Keynote, Tim had a decade of experience in Telecom industry, which includes work for Pacific Bell, SBC and AT&T in Internet Services, New Product Development and Mobile Customer Acquisition. Tim’s background also includes extensive experience in international retail, serving as country manager in both the US and abroad. He holds a B.A. from the University of California, San Diego and an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

About the company:

Keynote Systems is the global leader in mobile and web cloud testing & monitoring. Keynote maintains the world’s largest on-demand performance monitoring and testing infrastructure for Web and mobile sites comprised of over 7,000 measurement computers and mobile devices in over 275 locations around the world that enable companies to continuously improve the online and mobile experience. Keynote’s 4,000 customers represent top internet and mobile companies and include American Express, AT&T, Disney, eBay, E*TRADE, Expedia, Google, Microsoft, SonyEricsson, T-Mobile and Vodafone. Keynote Systems is headquartered in San Mateo, California.

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