HTML5 Unfriended by Facebook--at Least for iOS

By | Sep 14, 2012

HTML5 is supposed to be the multi-platform web standard of the future. But it has been dealt a setback by Facebook, which is switching to native code for iOS, the Apple operating system used by the iPhone and iPad.

For the IT community, the next question whether IT will count on a new Web standard. Will Facebook's move become a trend or (as Facebook claims) is it a one-off event? A lot of IT decisions at midsize firms will hang on the answer to these questions.

There is good reason, alas, to suspect that abandonment of a multiplatform standard will indeed become something of a trend. Smartphones, and their user environment, pose challenges that can make multiplatform code problematic. But this challenge may be accentuated for iOS devices. Because for Apple, not playing or working well with the other children is a feature, not a bug.

A Playground of its Own

As a proposed new-generation web standard, HTML5 has been gaining traction for some time now. It has been endorsed by key major vendors, among them Adobe, Google, and Apple itself. But now the new standard has hit a setback. As Jason D. O'Grady reports at ZDNet, Facebook has decided to abandon its existing iOS app, which used "a glorified HTML5 viewer," in favor of one built in Objective-C, native to iOS.

Further details are supplied by Paul Krill at InfoWorld. According to Facebook developer Jonathan Dunn, Facebook is not pulling back entirely from HTML5. Dunn notes that it is used for the Facebook mobile site, which gets more traffic than device-specific native apps. The web standard was apparently "falling short" in the user experience it delivered for the iPhone and iPad, which use Apple's iOS operating system.

Facebook's decision is very understandable. Mobile access is important to the social media network. And while only a minority of mobile Facebook users access the site via iPhones or iPads, these users tend to be at the high end of the market. They are critical to Facebook, which is hoping that mobile advertising will become a major revenue source.

My Way or the Highway

It should come as no surprise that Apple devices pose a particular challenge for multi-platform standards. Apple has a legendary obsession with two things, control of its ecosystem and ease of user experience. Apple supporters will assert - not without credible arguments - that these go hand in hand. In any case they are characteristic of the firm. For Apple, working smoothly with multi-platform code is, to put it mildly, not a priority.

But the problem may turn out to be not entirely Apple specific. On general principles, native code will always have some advantages over multi-platform code. Native code can address the underlying hardware directly, with no need for a mediating layer. So, given similar quality of coding, native code will run substantially faster.

This matters somewhat more for mobile devices, which have limited power in comparison to full-size computers. And for mobile users - typically on the go, and surrounded by distractions - speed and smoothness of operation are critical.

For the IT community at midsize firms, the resulting message is straightforward: Expect multiplatform standards to thrive. But also expect to sometimes jump through a few extra hoops to reach mobile users. Especially, but not exclusively, if they are iPhone or iPad users.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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