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HTML5 Web apps add device integration but trail native apps

New APIs let HTML5 Web apps integrate with mobile devices' cameras, microphones and storage, but native apps still have a leg up.

CHICAGO -- Web apps still have a ways to go, despite advancements in HTML5 that take advantage of mobile device-specific features.

One of the knocks against HTML5 Web apps, which run inside browsers, is they don't utilize the features that make smartphones and tablets so popular, such as multi-touch capabilities, cameras and push notifications.

That's changing, thanks to new application programming interfaces (APIs), but questions remain about performance and offline access.

Feature parity across different browsers is also a concern for IT shops considering HTML5 Web apps; although each major browser supports HTML5, they don't all adopt its new capabilities at the same time.

"HTML5 is not at a ubiquitous level for every device browser," said Brian Katz, director of mobile engineering at pharmaceutical company Sanofi, based in Bridgewater, N.J.

The pros of HTML5 Web apps

The evolution and benefits of the HTML5 programming language were discussed by Dan Shappir, chief technology officer of Closter, N.J.-based remote access vendor Ericom Software Inc., in a session here at BriForum 2012 this week. He explained how HTML5 emerged as an alternative to browser plug-ins such as Java applets and Flash, and why it's become popular with mobile application developers:

  • It lets developers build an application once and then run it on multiple platforms. "It's write once, run anywhere, or at least as close as we've ever come," Shappir said.
  • It's a common standard supported by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, as well as the major Web browser vendors, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, the Mozilla Foundation and Opera.
  • It's backward-compatible with older browsers.

Shappir also highlighted how HTML5 has improved integration with device-specific features. For example, the new WebRTC JavaScript API lets developers create browser-based, real-time voice and video communications apps that access mobile devices' cameras and microphones.

It is only available on Google Chrome so far.

The cons of HTML5 Web apps

Although proposed APIs would also allow HTML5 Web apps to access a device's contacts, calendar, battery status and more, options are still limited.

"HTML5 gets some of the device features, but that's about it," said Jason Conger, a solutions architect at San Francisco-based data monitoring and analysis vendor Splunk Inc.

HTML5 Web apps are making strides, Katz said, but he took issue with Shappir's advice that "unless you have a good reason to [develop] a native app, do it as a Web app."

Instead of choosing the type of app first, Katz said it's more important for developers to ask, "What's the app requirement and what's the user experience needed?"

When it comes to appearance, performance and device integration, native apps -- those developed specifically for a particular device and/or operating system -- have the upper hand. Shappir explained when a developer should choose to build native apps instead of HTML5 Web apps:

  • If you're developing for only one platform or want a platform's specific look and feel;
  • If you need maximum performance (although "JavaScript performance in some scenarios is approaching native app performance," he said); and
  • If offline access is key, or if your device needs full local access.

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