Performance issues remain a sticking point with HTML5, especially when it comes to mobile apps.
The fifth version of the web markup language is, as the Mad Men would say, new and improved in many important ways. Since it is especially strong in displaying rich, multimedia content and enabling web pages to interact with remote servers, HTML5 is expected to foster a mini-revolution in look and feel.
Check out this site, this one, and this one from Google (Chrome browser preferred) to see some truly striking examples of what this client-side programming standard is already making possible.
Hopes are running high. Roger McNamee, founding partner at the venture capital firm Elevation Partners, reckons that HTML5 could disrupt everything from publishing to music sales to e-commerce. It will do everything Adobe Flash can do -- but better.
This is a bigger deal than it may appear, as Flash is kludgy, buggy, and slow. By incorporating the Flash functionality into the HTML standard, HTML 5 gets additional benefits, including the ability to search any pixel on the page and the ability to "appify" any pixel.
He envisions HTML5 ushering in a nirvana of interactivity, leapfrogging the device-specific app world of iOS and a web experience dominated by search engines. Rich media ads not only will be able to morph themselves based on the content of individual web pages, he wrote; they will take orders directly, with no need to click away to a retailer's site.
HTML5 is largely a product of the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), a community of people interested in the evolution of HTML. It was launched by individuals from Apple, the Mozilla Foundation, and Opera Software in 2004. Ian Hickson, the editor of the WHATWG specifications, started that work while at Opera but has since moved to Google. HTML5 has marched forward deliberately for several years, reaching the last-call stage in 2011 and working draft status in May 2012. Now it has a W3C Candidate Recommendation. Although HTML5 is already in use, that recommendation greatly underscores its legitimacy.
So far, so good. But HTML5 has a problem. In many cases, it's slow -- painfully slow. Its sluggish performance, especially on mobile devices, has an immediate impact on users, and in the aggregate, it may affect the infrastructure that delivers content and functionality to those users.
According to a Data Center Post blog by Lori MacVittie, senior technical marketing manager at F5 Networks, one test found that mobile browsers running HTML5-based apps were on average nearly 900 times slower than traditional laptop computers. Even faster mobile devices using HTML5 were several times slower than laptops performing the same tasks. "Combining the performance impact of parsing HTML5 on mobile devices with mobility-related TCP impacts paints a dim view of performance for mobile clients in the future."
F5 is, of course, one of several infrastructure makers that stand ready to help, offering application delivery appliances designed to accelerate the perceived performance of web-based apps. But the blogosphere is full of people fretting over HTML5's sluggishness.
MacVittie argues that organizations that want to optimize delivery to both mobile and traditional end points should consider building "dynamic and agile infrastructure solutions" that can recognize when requests come from HTML5-based apps and do their best to compensate.
Still, proponents say the software's benefits outweigh any current performance problems. Hickson told me that, with mobile browsers and hardware devices getting faster all the time, HTML5 apps will steadily improve. And even though writing directly to a specific device's hardware typically improves performance, writing one device-neutral app in HTML5 will certainly take less time than writing native apps for each and every target device. "It's faster to deploy to all devices," Hickson said, and that is what developers ultimately want to do.
A company like Apple, of course, is less keen to see that kind of write-once-run-anywhere model take off. Though it does support some aspects of HTML5, the company is not as fully behind the standard as, say, Google is.
"At the end of the day, each implementer has to make the determination based on their resources and their needs," Hickson said. "For some needs, the Web is a clearly superior choice," especially for documents. For others -- perhaps writing a heavy 3D real-time multiplayer game with a complicated physics model -- HTML5 may not yet be the best choice.
"For things in between, it depends."