Software giant Adobe’s recent decision to remove Flash from the Google Play store has signalled a decline for the once hugely popular media player which has done much to define the way in which video and visuals have appeared on the internet since the late nineties. The Flash brand has become synonymous with everything from cutting edge animations to browser-based games, being a landmark in the development of the World Wide Web as a whole.
However, Flash is now being usurped in some quarters by a new challenger called HTML5, a whole programming language which could see Adobe’s well-know plug-in consigned to the recycle bin forever. Having become a major buzzword in the mobile industry in recent times, HTML5 is set to bring about huge developments in the way in which our smartphones interact with the internet. But mobile users could be forgiven for being a little confused about exactly what HTML5 is, how it works and what effect it will have on the phones of the future.
HTML is something that many internet users will be familiar with even if actually writing a piece of computer code is beyond them. The programming language is the building blocks from which many webpages are built, a seemingly complicated set of instructions which produce a very simple result – a website which can be displayed on a screen. It’s that strange collection of words and symbols that YouTube gives you when you embed a video player in your blog and it creates a foundation on which websites can be built, adapted and turned into the advanced and impressive things that they are.
Created by internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, HTML has been adapted several times since, producing iterations with names such as HTML4 and XHTML-MP, with HTML5 being the latest of these.
HTML requires other programmes, such as the Flash player, to be plugged-in to it in order for various functions to be performed. This is where those warnings which browsers used to give you about having to download a plug-in before you could watch something originated – another piece of software was required by the HTML code for it to show an element of the website.
On a desktop device, HTML5 allows a browser to perform a whole new range of tasks not possible before. For example, when using Google’s Chrome browser the Gmail webpage now allows you to drag a file straight from your desktop into the attachments section of an email. HTML5’s versatility, and especially the way in which it can effectively reach outside of a browser to connect with other elements of a device, makes it excellent for mobiles.
There is talk of “web apps” being created, websites which perform with the same functionality as apps on a smartphone, connecting with a handset’s features such as its camera, GPS signal and internal memory to offer something beyond that which a regular website could ever do before. Facebook has been leading the way in this area with its website currently featuring an HTML5 function that allows a user to upload an image from a phone’s gallery through the browser to the website, without the need for the Facebook app. However, no mobile browser actually supports this function yet, but more on that later.
Steve Jobs famously wouldn’t allow Flash onto the iPhone, slating the software as inefficient, insecure and a waste of battery life. The major drawback that this would have given Apple’s phone is that it would not have been able to play YouTube videos, but the manufacturer worked out a clever solution to this problem which involves a separate YouTube app that downloads a compressed mp4 file of the video before playing it. The app even downloads the video in a higher or lower quality depending on whether or not the device is connected to Wi-Fi.
HTML5 is more efficient and capable of offering a more elaborate array of features than Flash ever could, providing much more than just an alternative for playing media via a browser. While Flash’s downfall was by no means guaranteed it seems that Jobs and his company were ahead of the pack in this decision, although it is possible that Apple’s boycott of the software could have made a significant contribution to its demise.
But has Apple scored an own goal with its adoption of HTML5 and possibly made it harder to remain at the forefront of the mobile world?
If HTML5-enabled web apps become a reality then they could cause a major upset for the biggest players in the mobile software world, with both Apple and Google having found a lucrative source of revenue in their respective app stores.
Apple currently charges a 30% tax on app payments from iTunes, which is the only way of getting apps on to an iPhone or iPad short of jailbreaking the device. Web apps would offer a bypass to conventional app stores, allowing users to navigate to an HTML5 web page through their phone’s browser.
This poses a number of possibilities, none of which are great for Apple, Google and other big mobile names. If web apps can be written in HTML5 then this reduces the need for each service to have its own dedicated app for each platform – all that is needed is an HTML5-compatible browser for someone to access it. This is great for app developers –there will be no need to rebuild an app for each operating system with the expense and time that this incurs – but not for the large companies which enable each platform.
Why? Because this could cause mobile platforms and devices to lose their identity. If any app can be accessed from any platform as long as the OS includes an HTML5-compatible browser then there would be little difference in the services that each operating system could offer. iOS would not have an advantage over Android or vice versa since an app could be used on a device which runs either platform.
As well as reducing the overall identity of the big operating systems this would make it easier for smaller emerging platforms to gain prominence. One criticism that is frequently levelled at Windows Phone is that there are far fewer apps available for it than for iOS and Android, however, this wouldn’t be the case if web apps began to dominate – as long as Microsoft included an HTML5 browser with its software then a WP device would be able to access the same apps as any running Apple or Google’s operating systems.
Facebook appears to love this idea and is putting a great deal of effort into promoting the development of HTML5. Since the social network does not own a mobile platform it only stands to gain from increasing the functions and features which it can offer to its mobile users and it has become a driving force in a campaign to standardise HTML5 support and bring it to all mobile operating systems.
Mark Zuckerberg’s company has introduced an open source software kit called Ringmark which is aimed at helping developers to build web apps and further develop the compatibility of browsers. The software includes a number of standards of HTML5 compatibility to which Facebook feels browsers should conform. No mobile browser currently meets these standards.
This is why Facebook mobile users are not able to upload photos directly to their profile through a browser, even though the social network has enabled this feature. While Mozilla and Opera are on board with the campaign and working to bring their respective browsers up to scratch, Apple and Google have not joined up and HTML5 support within Safari and Chrome’s mobile versions could lag behind.
However, the idea that web apps could one day completely replace the apps that currently exist on smartphones is a domesday scenario for mobile manufacturers and is unlikely to happen. As attractive as the idea of one version of an app being supported by all platforms is to developers it is not quite as attractive as having their apps promoted by Apple and Google through iTunes and Google Play, something which only really happens if those companies can use the exclusivity of the apps as a way of promoting the sales of their devices.
A perfect example of this is Flipboard, an app which was originally introduced for the iPad only. The news feed reader made the iPad look great and was shown off by Apple as a prime example of the device’s capabilities and promoted in the iTunes app store. Since Flipboard was only available for the iPad it made the device more desirable, something which would not have been the case had it been available across all platforms as soon as it was launched.
Also, apps offer what could be described as a more comfortable experience than browsers – there is no need to type in URLs or bother with any of the more fiddly aspects of online navigation. Google recognises this, providing native apps and widgets to several platforms which simply ape the search features of its webpage.
Since Facebook already has this ubiquity across mobile devices it is not concerned about appealing to any one particular manufacturer. After all, no one is going to buy a smartphone solely due to Facebook being available on it since it can be accessed in varying degrees from all of them.
What is more likely is that HTML5 web apps will become more developed and will begin to offer some excellent features that complement the apps already on your phone without completely replacing them. Hopefully, a comfortable middle-ground can be found between manufacturers like Apple (who want to keep their devices exclusive) and companies like Facebook (who want to standardise browsers for full HTML5 support).
This lack of standardisation is something that will probably dog the development of HTML5 for some time to come. While Flash is gone from Google Play and was never introduced to iOS the development of its successor is far from complete and, like many open source projects, it is continually evolving.
As an example of this, developers have still not agreed upon the type of video to be used by HTML5 websites with formats called H.264, VP8/WebM and Ogg Theora all being employed across various sites. Flash may be on the way out, but the standardisation of which Facebook dreams is still some way off.
Nevertheless, the possibilities HTML5 opens up are many, especially since the hardware capabilities of smartphones is only going to increase. The likely scenario is that web apps will find a happy co-existence as a newcomer to the smartphone world, enabling a range of new functions while also challenging app developers and hardware manufacturers to create more innovative features.
We think it is doubtful that platforms will lose their identity due to the emergence of web apps, with manufacturers likely to fight fiercely to avoid this. Ultimately, HTML5 is a hugely important evolution in phone technology that could be as influential on the development of the mobile web as Flash has been on the internet as a whole.