The Future of App Development: Native or HTML5?

By Wesley Fenlon

Native apps dominate the mobile industry, but growing platform competition and advanced web technologies could eventually shift that tide towards HTML5 development.

What do you trust more: mobile apps or native platform apps? Are you more likely to use an application downloaded from the iTunes Marketplace, built with Apple's Cocoa tools, than a web-based app built in HTML5? Despite the tech industry's move towards cloud computing, the word "app"--and the connotation that said app was built for a specific platform--still carries incredible weight. Even when native apps don't offer a superior experience to a web app, we automatically assume they're more powerful, custom tailored to our needs and our platform.

Founders of Square, the mobile payment service that debuted in 2010, say native applications are critical to user experience. Are dedicated app stores our future, or is Square underestimating the potential of HTML5 web apps?

Native applications present an obvious appeal for developers: stores like iTunes push popular apps and encourage sales. Users see those apps on their home screens every day. Those apps drive sales and platform support. Native apps are generally better able to mesh with a specific device and hook into platform APIs. The disadvantage: coding said apps in different langauges for different platforms. Most developers would be happy to see their apps on everything from BlackBerry to Windows Phone 7, but porting to those platforms from iOS takes days, weeks or months of extra work.

That's the advantage of HTML5 development: write once with web tools and support multiple platforms. And with tools like PhoneGap, designing full blown applications with JavaScript and CSS is becoming more practical. PhoneGap wraps web applications in a native shell that provides access to platform-specific APIs. HTML5 applications developed and released through PhoneGap may not rival the user experience or speed of a native application just yet--they only tap into basic APIs like notifications, geolocation, motion sensing--but they're a whole lot faster to develop and roll out to multiple platforms.

HP is a proponent of PhoneGap for WebOS development and a friend to HTML5 development in general--the platform isn't called WebOS for nothing. Apple's definitely not going to ditch Cocoa development anytime soon, but at least other platforms are making an effort to unify platform standards. Meanwhile, the native app market grows stronger: Square COO Keith Rabois told Wired 33 percent of Yelp searches come from the 10 percent of iOS users who have installed the app.

People have been calling for HTML5 to take over for years, and it still hasn't quite happened yet. Remember the Chrome Web Store? Not exactly a huge, thriving marketplace. Services like PhoneGap and HP's major relaunch of WebOS might help speed things along.Once HTML5 can run Quake II and Quake III, well, we'll probably trust it do anything.

Image via flickr user freeed