HTML5 – The End of Apps?

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Guest post from Julien Oudart, Sofialys

Julien Oudart is VP Sales & Marketing mobile marketing company Sofialys. Here he writes for Mobile Europe on the topic of apps - asking if html5 means the end of apps. What do you think?

YouTube is revamping its mobile site at, making its mobile application obsolete. This move further validates industry speculation that HTML5, along with better processors and cloud services, might just mean the demise of applications. In such a case, industry experts say developers will need to take heed.  Most importantly, it cuts through the highly fragmented phone market working on any HTML5-compliant mobile browser, including iPhone and Android. According to some industry specialists because the browser is not within Apple's iAd white picket fence, it has more advertising revenue options. 

This article aims to discuss the arrival of HTML 5 and its impact on companies in the media and advertising world. To what extent will HTML5 be used in the near future?  Does it’s creation really mean the demise of mobile applications?  What would this mean for developers and Google and Apple?  How would this affect the mobile ad industry and what new revenue could it generate?

A lot of evidence points to the decline of apps, or at least the slowing down of apps over the next few years.  A recent report published by IBA suggests that app sales will peak by 2013. At an OMMA Mobile conference that took place in New York earlier this year, agency delegates firmly concluded that HTML5 is the future of mobile advertising, and Apple certainly seem to confirm this view with the recent introduction of iAd. Launched on 1st July, Apple’s new service – which is HTML5 compatible and will offer advertising inside mobile apps, initially on the iPhone and iPod Touch – promises to combine the emotion of TV advertising with the interactivity of internet advertising. The company claims that the deals it has already secured represent almost half of the total forecasted mobile ad spend in the US for the second half of 2010. A force to be reckoned with without a doubt, (if the figures are to be believed), with Apple taking more than $60m in bookings for the new network even before its official launch date.

Other industry experts are also convinced that applications will become redundant in a 4G world. Indeed, when we consider the fact that a brand will soon be able to simply just build a HTML5 website which consumers can then store as a bookmarked icon on their iPhone’s home screen, it does seem to point to the redundancy of applications. And Saj Cherian, principal at US-based Valhalla Partners, in Vienna (VA), has a valid point when he says that Apps have proliferated primarily to address the shortcomings of device processing power and network bandwidth. As faster smartphones gain mass adoption, 4G networks are stood up, and more processing is done in the cloud, we will inevitably go back to the Web.  He believes that we will get the rich user experience we have come to know via apps by merely browsing the Web. HTML5 will be a catalyst as well as a host of other enabling technologies, such as better browsers and cloud-based services. Indeed, according to the 2010 Mobile Web Usage Forecast by mobile Internet firm Volantis, HTML5 could become the standard platform for browsers and mobile web applications. Moreover, the forecast predicted that the greatest pull toward the mobile web would be gaming and social networking.  55% said social networking would encourage them to use mobile web and 17% said they would use the mobile web to access games. Others however, believe Games will be the exception rather than the rule as they are more processing intensive and better merchandised / monetized via application store downloads.

A take-over?

However, whether HTML5 will take over from apps is another question – and one that has sparked raging debate over the past few months. While there is little doubt that the advent of HTML5 is definitely good news for the mobile advertising industry (it is a way for advertisers to create richer experience and increase interactivity with end users – through enhanced designs, animation and visuals), there is strong evidence to suggest that both worlds will be able to happily co-exist, for the time being at least.

HTML5 will be increasingly used for mobile websites and more – as a general rule anything that improves user experience on mobile web is something the industry is looking at closely. In addition to YouTube’s afore-mentioned experimental HTML5-based version of their site, TechCrunch has reported that NetFlix is flirting with HTML5, too, especially as it pertains to embedded browsers in TV-based devices.  And the New York Times’ website now embeds some video clips without resorting to Flash.  The revamping of the YouTube website is a particularly significant move and one that has a direct impact on the mobile marketing and advertising industry. As the world’s biggest online and video community, it is a platform on which marketers are able to find virtually any audience they want to target and create innovative advertising and video content that allows the community to interact with the brand.  YouTube enables brands and marketers to increase sales and exposure in various different ways; in addition to running video advertising, such as InVideo Ads or YouTube video ads, brands also sponsor contests, create brand channels and add their own original content to the PC and mobile versions of the site. 

This has particular relevance in view of a recent Morgan Stanley report indicating that within 5 years more users will connect to the Internet via mobile devices than desktop PC’s. Given that YouTube consumption on mobile devices has also grown considerably (playbacks were up 160% in 2009 over the previous year), it is more than fitting that the site has opened up the concept of accessing video on the go. The company is currently rolling out an updated version of the mobile site and which is not only faster but also offers a user interface that incorporates larger, more touch-friendly elements and features and functionalities such as search query suggestions.

All this seemingly provides additional evidence of how, in terms of mobile web VS. Applications, HTML5 will definitely close up the existing gap in terms of navigation, functionalities between apps and mobile web. What has up until now required browser plug-ins and other patches to HTML, most typically Flash, will soon be renderable, natively, in all major browsers. Web developers are likely tp play an important role on this shifting landscape over the coming years. It is extremely probable that they will soon be able to deliver such content and experiences in all major browsers using one base of markup and script code (JavaScript and/or jQuery), without having to resort to browser-specific code and workarounds. Despite what the sceptics say, Microsoft is seemingly dedicated to full-on HTML5 support in their version 9 of the browser which is currently under development.


HTML5 features

So what then, are the new major features of HTML5 and how will these affect the mobile marketing and advertising industry?

•    2D drawing capabilities and 3D transforms
It therefore becomes possible to render 3D images and animations, making HTML-based games more feasible than at present.

•    Embedded audio and video
A media player can appear directly in a web page without resorting to plug-ins while content can play automatically.

•    Major enhancements to form-based input
Line-of-business applications, with complicated input and data validation are supported directly.

•    Offline caching, local storage and client-side SQL database
These facilities simply allow Web applications to function more like native apps, even if no Internet connection is available.

•    User-defined data
Data (or metadata – data about data!) is easier to embed statically and/or retrieved and updated with Javascript code, eliminating the need to embed that data within a separate file or script code.

Although all this may sound slightly complicated, what it essentially boils down to is that, when combined, these features enable HTML to compete with, and perhaps even overtake Adobe’s Flash/AIR as a viable Web platform for media rich internet applications, (essentially apps that function more like desktop software than web sites) and interactive Web content, including games.

For example, the New York Times’ website uses HTML5 to embed video clips without resorting to Flash. They are simply obliged to do so, otherwise iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users would not be able to see them in the Mobile Safari browser. The importance of the iPad on this ever-changing landscape is not to be overlooked. For Michael Scafidi, technology director at Razorfish, it will be a catalyst for HTML adoption. He believes that Adobe’s Flash will most definitely lose share to the new open Web standard, directly due to advertising on the iPad, given its lack of support for Flash. However, outside of the iPad and iPhone, he believes it will still be used for more immersive media and advertising. Other companies have made it known that they will stick with Flash for advertising wherever it seems to make sense.

So how important will new tablet devices be for the future of mobile marketing and advertising and is the absence of Flash on the iPad really the tablet’s Achilles heel? Flash’s detractors would argue that the cross-platform browser plug-in is incredibly intensive to run on any device, and burns through batteries faster. They argue that HTML5 can do almost as much as Flash without the power drain. Under these circumstances, it would seem that advertisers need to start creating ads in HTML 5 and it would seem that the brands which have already done this successfully on the iPad have benefitted from fantastic results. A recent report on “Tabvertising” published by the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) would also seem to support this as it points out the various different advertising opportunities that are available including search, email, social media, video, websites and apps. The IAB advises marketers to create iPad-ready websites (rather than branded apps) since sites can be found in search engines (while apps currently can’t be). Furthermore, according to the IAB, display advertising on the iPad represents an incontestable opportunity, due to the way in which adverts are displayed on tablets and the advantages offered to advertisers by new touchscreen capabilities. While some commentators point to the lack of consistency with formats across online and tablet ads and believe this could hinder the creation of large campaigns, others are more optimistic and believe that Apple’s iAds will encourage the standardization of advertising on the iPad.

A co-existence

So, all of this tends to back-up the theory that HTML and apps will happily co-exist, in the medium term at least.  However, there are obviously other elements that confirm this viewpoint, that need to be taken into account. Central to App. V HTML5 debate is the fact that some things are simply function better through an app, generally games or content that is resident on a device rendering access simpler and bypassing the need to call a website. Moreover, only applications can take advantage of phone features such as the camera and the accelerometer.  These phone features are not available at the browser or HTML5 level, so the need for specific tool like apps is highly unlikely to completely disappear. Neil Strother, a practice director at ABI research in Kirkland (WA), believes the concept of APP/HTML5 co-existence is a valid one. “A brand will provide a good mobile application for content or specific services that can take advantage of certain devices (Android, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry), and a good mobile site that allows for anyone for a mobile browser to visit and have a good experience,” he says.  It is also important to remember that although many brands and creative agencies believe that they need to develop iPhone apps, what they need in reality is a good mobile site. It costs less to develop, manage and work across all handsets. Additionally, customization is a value of apps that cannot be replicated on the mobile Web because mobile sites cannot track cookies.

Yet, despite the huge potential of HTML 5, firstly in its ability to deliver video content to HTML 5 games based apps and secondly its compatibility across various platforms, the presence of two specific elements will prevent HTML 5 from world domination: appstores and data.

It is impossible to deny the success of the Apple’s Appstore itself. The company has succeeding in radically changing the mobile user’s relationship with content (through their portals), to getting it through App stores. The shift from carrier to OS relationship has been fundamental and offers unprecedented usability and engagement. Searching, downloading and installing is child’s play and what’s more they are virus free. Perhaps moving to an exclusively HTML5 world will mean the arrival of viruses on mobile phones. Let’s not forget that app stores have gone even further and caught the imagination of mobile users. The icons have indeed become “iconic”. How many iPhone users admit to flicking through their home pages looking at all those cool-looking icons?!

Secondly, we must not assume that all mobile users have good quality, active data connection. Mobile data connections are generally much slower and significantly less reliable than fixed lines. Despite the availability of 3G, the signal can vary from place to place. The advantage of having an app on one’s phone is that the basic functions are already there. Just as many companies who switched to the cloud for all their applications quickly switched back, we will need to install apps on our phones, just as we need to with our PC’s. 4G combined with Wimax may help solve some of these problems but not in the immediate future.

Therefore, in a nut-shell, it seems that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that HTML 5 and Apps will be able to co-exist harmoniously; people will download their preferred apps onto their phone for direct access from the icon on their mobile desktop, and use the mobile web as a complement to search for information while on the go. It is highly likely that traffic will dramatically increase on both channels over the next couple of years as in parallel to the arrival of HTML5 mobile websites, handset vendors, operators and media groups will continue to push appstores (today, although the apple appstore is by far the largest, this is expected to evolve over time). Technology will be used to create app-like interfaces on the mobile web. Ultimately, what it all leads back to is specific brand goals.  For some brands, a mobile app may be the answer and for others, a HTML5 web-based site may be the way to go. Companies are more likely to use apps for branding and fun things that need the native operating system. We will probably witness a fleshing out of what we currently see on the App store – there will be more selective types of apps… Via HTML5 and Web apps, the future is likely to bring better, faster more integrated mobile sites. After all, what will take precedence is the ability to access relevant content anywhere anytime, whether on an app or through the mobile browser.