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Why HTML 5 Will Kill (or seriously Injure) Mobile App Stores

Rise of the Mobile App Store and Mobile App Development

Earlier this year, Apple’s App Store reached its 10 billionth web application download goal. What is amazing is that they did this in about 30 months’ time. Apple’s first iPhone was released to the US market at the end of June in 2007. At the time, the smartphone was seen as a huge leap forward in innovation. Users were able to interact with this new device in ways that they never could using just a cell phone on a wireless carrier. This was more than a phone – this was the beginning of the mobile web.

When the iPhone was released, Apple announced that the iPhone would support third-party web applications written in Ajax (asynchronous Javascript and XML) so long as the apps maintained the look and feel of the iPhone interface.  In March 2008, Apple released a software development kit to third-party developers and a slough of developers set out to create native applications for Apple mobile devices.

Apple’s App Store opened for business on July 11, 2008. The apps that were offered in the beginning were primarily Apple developed educational programs, mobile commerce and business productivity tools.  There was no Angry Birds, Bejeweled, or my personal favorite, Flick Fishing.  Games hadn’t really come along yet – they came along later and have proved to be “crazy popular” with users–dominating all app store categories over the last two years.

Considering that Apple is usually looked to as the pioneering force in smart phone app development and marketing, its worth taking a closer look at how their mobile app business model has grown and is evolving.  However one might feel about Apple’s dominance in the app market, it is true that they have captured not just a significant market share but also consumer’s and developers imaginations. But Apple is no longer alone in this market. According to research from IHS Screen Digest, the combined revenues from the four major mobile application stores by Apple, Nokia, Google and Research in Motion will be $3.8 billion in 2011.  This is up 77.7% from 2010, a spike likely due to the growing number of smartphone and tablet device users. Apple’s take will be around $2.91 billion (that’s about three-quarters share of the market).  The total number of downloaded apps in 2011 is expected to reach 18.1 billion by year-end.  And the analysts are predicting that the mobile app trend is just going to continue to grow.

When it launched, the App Store had just 552 iPhone applications, and today, mobile applications in the iTunes App Store exceeds 400,000 with developers submitting almost 700 new apps every day to Apple for review and testing.  The success of the mobile app store has a great deal to do with the sheer amount of third-party developers producing native applications to run on iOS and the structure that Apple created so developers could make money off their apps.  The iTunes App Store makes it very easy for users to discover and purchase new apps and also makes it very easy for developers to monetize their efforts.

Web based vs. Native applications

In 2009, Mobile App Stores and HTML5 were noted by Wired to be top technological disrupters of the year, so it seems fitting that we revisit that notion two years down the line. App stores (and smartphones) made your cell phone more like a mini computer. The iPhone shifted the control to consumers, so the user could decide what functions their “phone” served.

Developers of mobile applications rework their app’s code based on each target device (eg. iPhone, Android phone, or Blackberry).  In doing this, they are creating a native application for each device.  These “walled gardens” pull information from the web, but don’t necessarily fully exploit the advantages of the entire web (for example: cross platform compatibility, centralization, web metrics, updatability).  However, native apps are said to be faster for graphic-intensive games. Native apps take full advantage of features within the device that typical programs on PC based browsers can’t like the accelerometer, GPS or bluetooth.

photo by yisrisMost phones sold today have more modern advances that allow them to operate on super fast networks, like 4G or LTE.  Fast, reliable connections are needed to run web protocols, like HTML5, so a user can access applications through the web, rather than it sitting on a hard drive.  HTML5 would allow developers to create apps much like they create web pages.  Developers would only have to create one app, rather than several iterations based on the device, and it would run seamlessly when called up through a browser.  Additionally, because it allows developers to code once, HTML5 has the potential to save companies wanting a mobile presence money on development costs.  HTML5 also taps into some of the rich features on smartphones, like the accelerometer and geo-location.

The Disrupters: Google, Facebook’s Project Spartan, and publishers

Most of the exploration surrounding the web based model using HTML5 has a great deal to do with money (tapping into Apple’s market share and also developers wanting to keep that 30% royalty fee the Apple App Store requires), politics and freedom of innovation in mobile computing.

Over the past few years, Google has placed loads of resources into the development of building web-based applications for it’s mobile Android OS and Chrome browser so it is no surprise that they are beating the HTML5 drum loudest.  A top secret project in the Facebook camp that would circumvent the App Store on iOS devices has also been leaked. News of Facebook’s new web based photo sharing app leaked three weeks ago.  Facebook’s hush hush project is called Project Spartan+. It’s totally HTML5 based and its aim is to reach over 100 million people with the app in the mobile space, without developing a native version or distributing it inside the Apple App Store.  In fact, the platform will launch with full functionality on Apple’s Safari.  Facebook has almost 700 million users worldwide so they are in a unique position to shake up Apple’s market leader status and attract users with this platform.

Another key user group, publishers, are using HTML5 to break up the distribution model around subscriptions.  Apple required monthly subscriptions to be purchased within the app and they take a whopping 30% from those reoccurring purchases.  Apple revised that policy recently.  Nonetheless, magazine publishers and music services like Rhapsody have been exploring HTML5 based web application development to break free of Apple shackles.  In doing so, these organizations will save in development costs, have a direct channel to their customer’s data, and can deliver multi-platform content updates are more efficiently.  UK-based Financial Times is known as a digital product leader and recently successfully launched an HTML5 web application to meet the demands of new mobile platforms.  You can test out the New York Times version here.

Consumers have the ultimate power to shake up Apple

While some high profile web proponents dream of a day that internet standards will take on a code once/fit all device development cycle, adoption will still be left up to users.

In Lisa Gitleman’s book, Always Already New, the author makes a salient point when contrasting the expressions New Media Publics and New Media Users.  In the case of the phonograph, when introduced to this device, new technology citizens became interested in it.  This change of thinking lead to citizens being looked upon as consumers, therefore defining an entire market system around the idea of home consumption.  I think there are some parallels with this case.  Consumer choice will drive the “massification” of moving users to HTML5 web-based applications.  There will gradually be more examples of how this technology can work for the public and it will gradually become more familiar to mobile users.

I feel that there is also another organized group working in tandem with consumers – developers.  Developers in every sense of the word are users. As Gitleman points out, users are not necessarily just consumers of a technology but they can take an active role in defining its features.  As more developers build applications with HTML5 technology they will be better able to define feature/benefits of web based applications to better serve the needs of consumers.

The story is going to be told between the uses (the differences in technology, the cost/benefits) of HTML5 and the users.  If game apps and e-books are the two most popular categories of native app downloads, is there enough pizzazz and reason behind HTML5 technology to convince consumers to rethink their purchase behavior? Right now, apps have a speed advantage over many mobile sites because they store and access data natively. Fast networks, HTML5 technologies, and consumer choice will make this advantage much less pronounced in the future.

This article was taken from a paper presented to the Summer 2011 Evolutions and Trends graduate seminar at the University of Washington’s Master of  Communication in Digital Media program.



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17 Responses to Why HTML 5 Will Kill (or seriously Injure) Mobile App Stores

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  2. travisgamedev says:

    This is a joke. Hahahahaha. Funny one guys.

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  5. I’m not seeing what’s so funny, travisgamedev. Although the ability to play videos without Flash has gotten the most attention HTML 5 is much, much more than just adding media types to HTML 4. It is a framework for creating rich interactive applications that will run inside browsers. Maybe HTML 5 will never become the primary authoring platform for casual games, but there’s no technical reason something like Angry Birds couldn’t be done with it. And not everything in the App Store is that complex — a lot of apps are just information delivery systems.

    Already I see a lot of people wasting resources building native mobile apps when they could accomplish the same thing by simply by optimizing their sites for mobile experiences. When you create a mobile application you get into the software development business, and if you don’t follow best practices of user support and ongoing release cycles, you’ll end up with unhappy customers and eventually a broken app. If you are already in the Web site business, you can make your site work well on multiple mobile platforms with little additional skills or effort. If that fits your needs but you still really want a mobile app, you can make a simple one that loads the mobile version of your site in the device’s browser.

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  7. Spanky says:

    The problem is market and monetization.

    How many eyeballs can you get if you’re not Fakebook and you’re invisible on the app store?

    Next, how do you get users from all over the world with different currencies and tax rules to pay you for your efforts?

    A front end native app that takes end users to a write once run anywhere HTML5 application doesn’t work as you’d have a less than optimal user experience and the same monetization ball ache.

    In short, native dev and app stores are good for mobile devices while html5 is good for turning larger PC applications into multi-tenancy and/or web based applications.

    The idea that you can blend the two on mobile is only accurate if you don’t care about marketing or monetizing your dev efforts.

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