The HTML5 Question: To App or Not To App?
A look at the advantages--and very really challenges--of working in HTML5.
As publishers puzzle over their tablet strategies, a larger question will complicate matters during the next few years. Since tablets and smartphones all have built-in browsers, why not skip native apps altogether and publish in HTML or its next incarnation: HTML5? The question has technical implications for magazine publishers and their production and IT staff. It also raises business issues to which publishers must pay close attention.
Briefly, HTML5 is simply the latest version of the markup language for rendering human-readable content on the Web. Managed by a working group of the W3C, the not-yet-official standard* will address a host of functional and aesthetic issues common to Web sites using HTML 4.01 (the current standard) and XHTML. Another new aspect will be the specification of scripting APIs, including extension of the Document Object Model (DOM) and such things as offline storage and document editing. Other technologies relevant to mobile publishing, including geolocation and database interactivity, will remain separate.
HTML5 will also have native support for audio, video and other elements currently supported by plugins (like Flash), although video issues are not all resolved.
High quality layout and media handling are not "givens" in HTML5. Significant programming is still required – although desktop tools are starting to catch up. HTML5 is currently at the Working Draft stage, and is not expected to reach Candidate Recommendation by 2012. Full W3C recommendation may be as late as 2022, however, according to the specification editor. Notwithstanding, many companies, including Adobe, are implementing stable parts of it now.
Also, HTML5 is not fully compatible with all browsers, notably Internet Explorer, and must by definition remain backward compatible with older versions of HTML. What this means for publishers is that it won’t be a quick fix. Many typographic and multimedia niceties are still more easily achieved in the native app environment – at least for now.
Some publishers and developers are not waiting. Both ZMags and Mygazines have largely turned away from branded apps in favor of HTML and HTML5 for their iPad editions. Under the hood, many branded apps already utilize HTML5, although some early efforts have created crash-prone publications. For many developers, the decision to choose HTML5 or a native app depends on the use case. If the publisher needs to take advantage of tablet-specific functions, like the accelerometer or camera, then an app is the obvious choice. Geolocation and media file access can in theory be better served with an app, as can offline reading, but much is also possible in HTML5. According to ZMags, the strongest apps are those that can aggregate constantly changing, need-to-know information, while HTML5 will ultimately be better for information distribution.
In theory, HTML5 also gives publishers an alternative to Apple and the App Store, whose financial, subscriber data and content restrictions have been frustrating, to say the least. However, by foregoing the App Store, publishers would also be foregoing the benefits of Apple’s semi-captive app search and overall marketing presence. Publishers who insist on opting out of Apple’s universe must first learn how to market tablet apps without iTunes.
Perhaps the most serious barrier to HTML5 adoption by publishers is the absence of a viable payment model. Magazines and advertisers who rely on in-app purchasing would be well advised to stay with the app model for now, despite the loss of revenue to Apple. This applies to advertising e-commerce as well. Although the app model may succumb to service provider greed in the short term, publishers need to have payment models firmly in place before seeking an alternative.
What may ultimately decide the issue is the various tool sets for creating apps or browser-only publications. Although enterprise-level tablet projects will always be with us, the day-to-day work of providing magazine content will influence which platform is used more. Adobe is betting on both sides of the debate. InDesign and Digital Publishing Suite are among the many tools for creating apps for iOS and Android devices. On the other hand, Dreamweaver CS 5.5 (announced on April 11) will utilize both HTML5 and CSS3, creating browser layouts that can automatically adapt to desktop, tablet and smartphone browser screens. In the long run, it will be interesting to see whether familiar page layout tools will evolve as HTML5 generators, or whether Web design tools will become more adept at creating compelling tablet content.
Another factor that will likely drive HTML5 publishing development along more quickly is social media. Even when native apps have well-integrated Twitter or Facebook functionality, the actual conversations occur on the Web, not inside the app "wall." Despite the obvious revenue risks, publishers who want the benefits of social media will have to operate in the modern, open Web environment.
John Parsons is the principal of Byte Media Strategies, a publishing technology and business consultancy. He is the former editorial director of The Seybold Report. He has written, researched and advised on such topics as digital/tablet/mobile publishing, e-books, print-to-mobile (QR) campaigns and digital print. John can be reached at 206-842-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.