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They say that the only certainties in life are tax and death. Nowadays there seems to be a third: you need to mobilise your business, or go out of business. But while this might be a certainty for many, what is less certain is how you go about this. Especially because it sometimes feels like you are getting conflicting, yet equally eloquent and passionate, advice about which path to take: native, HTML5, hybrid, and so on, and so on.
HTML5 is the latest contender to enter the fray. This is the most recent iteration of the mark-up language that writes the web. In the mobile world it promises to allow developers to build web apps that are nearly as feature-rich as their native application counterparts. Many are heralding this as the solution to operating system and device fragmentation in the mobile world. Build once and deploy everywhere.
At the outset, let me assure you that this is a myth, as well as naïve and irresponsible advice. Anyone who has developed for the desktop web knows how fragmented this is, so it boggles the mind that people would think the mobile web world is going to be any different. From different browsers rendering the same code in different ways, to users simply not updating their browsers to the latest versions, to browsers only partially supporting HTML5, to the differences between the same browser running on different operating systems or handsets, there is no one-size-fits-all in the mobile web world. This has been the case with so many “standards” as soon as they are implemented by multiple players.
Having said that, however, it is worth taking a look at whether HTML5 is for you or not, as this can help gain clarity over your mobile strategy.
1. Are you content-led?
HTML5, like HTML4, is especially suited to discovering and sharing content online even while moving between different sites, while native OSs are better for more intense two-way interaction requiring the best possible user experience to keep users engaged. So if you are a publisher, or some other way involved with the creation, discovery and sharing of content, HTML5 could be for you.
2. Do you need to harness smartphone capabilities?
Do you need to tap into the specific capabilities of the smartphone for your service to work in a mobile environment? For instance, the camera, accelerometer or GPS? While HTML5 has more of this sort of capability than its predecessor, it still has nowhere near the abilities that native applications can offer. Depending on the capabilities you are looking for, HTML5 might not be for you.
3. Do you need to cater for the smartest smartphones?
You could possibly get away with choosing one or two popular operating systems and building a business around them if you are in the mobile consumer market. In that case, stick to native apps. But you are unlikely to get away with this approach in the enterprise mobility market. Firstly it is becoming not only accepted but also expected that employees get to bring their personal devices into the workplace. In addition, companies have no control over which mobile devices their suppliers and customers use. In this case HTML5 might prove to be a very useful bridging technology, allowing you to reach all your users and start to learn how they are using your mobile service.
4. Do you need to cater for regular phones?
If you are operating in South Africa or other emerging markets, the answer to this is very definitely yes. According to latest industry stats from research firm World Wide Worx, smartphones account for around 15% of handsets in South Africa. Of the total market, the iPhone holds a slim 2%. So 85% of your market is NOT using a smartphone, and may never. And even if you are operating in more developed markets, you can be sure that a segment of your market still has entry level or feature phones whether out of economic necessity or — shock, horror — preference. Now things start getting interesting and you may need to look further afield than HTML5, to native apps and older technologies such USSD, WAP and SMS. (And you might be surprised, some of your more sophisticated users might prefer these technologies in the right time and place — look at the ongoing popularity of SMS banking alerts around the world.)
Bonus point 5. (This is not homogeneous for all MEAPs)
Of course, the truth is you don’t need to rule HTML5 in or out. If you chose to use a mobile enterprise application platform which caters for all these technologies, including the older channels as well as HTML5, for your mobile development, rather than tackling mobilisation platform by platform and device by device, you can deliver a mobile service to all your customers, whatever their mobile technology preferences. And the beauty is, the super-sophisticated smartphone users won’t need to dumb down their experience, nor will the feature phone users be left out in the cold. In addition, with the arrival of new platforms such as HTML5 and Windows Phone 7 these services are immediately supported without having to set up an entirely new team.
The reality is that this is the only thing that can help companies tackle the OS and device fragmentation in the mobile world. Savvy businesses are basing their mobilisation strategy around mobile enterprise application platforms, allowing them to roll out mobile services across all platforms to all users, offering each user the best optimised and secured mobile service for their device.