Dev

Native vs. HTML5: How the auto industry is forcing change for the mobile web

Michael O’Shea is the CEO and president of Abalta Technologies.

Today’s mobile apps are mostly native. However, in a lot of ways, HTML5 is a goldmine waiting to be discovered by developers. It has the ability to “build once and deploy to many,” meaning any device with a web browser can support them. This approach is perfect for companies bringing mobile applications to market today, especially for those in the automotive infotainment market.

Connected cars are quickly gaining mainstream adoption and consumers are demanding a similar experience in their car as they receive on their smartphones. This is forcing automakers and app developers to quickly develop apps to meet consumer demand. However, there is currently a huge debate on how to tackle this issue. The industry’s bigwigs – Ford and GM – recently announced differing strategies on how to best leverage the smartphone in the car. And while they recognize that this is important to the value of their brand, they are going to have to decide the most time- and cost-effective way to support apps for all the different smartphone operating systems available. This is why automakers, in-vehicle infotainment designers and developers are turning to HTML5.

Defining the challenges of HMTL5

Imagine a world where developers can fund and maintain multiple variations of the same application without worrying about the ever-changing dynamics of mobile hardware and operating systems. Users could enjoy seamless access from any screen. And even though a web-based approach to mobile application development seems like the best one, the question remains: are HTML5 apps ready for primetime?

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Admittedly, HTML5 mobile apps cannot match native apps in terms of performance expectations today. Applications requiring sophisticated algorithms, complex data manipulation, or those using heavier graphics are still slow when implemented as web-based applications. Native apps also appear as a natural extension of the platform, seamlessly working with the controls and resident applications on the phone.

HTML5 standards are also driven by a consortium, contributing to longer lead times to identifying and implementing improvements to the current state of HTML5 technology. Mobile web browser vendors will most likely implement the latest proposals even before they become standards, but a big question is whether they will be universally available on all platforms implemented the same way. In addition, given some of HTML5’s current performance issues, developers still need to heavily test web-based applications across multiple mobile platforms in the market. As a result, much of the benefit resulting from the development of one “core” application is presently negated.

HTML5 means faster implementation and deployment

Currently, the decision to develop web-based apps versus native largely depends on the use case. For example, consider the difference between a gaming app and a publishing app. Gaming apps rely more heavily on the native controls of the platform where it resides, whereas publishing apps are far less dependent on native integration, typically donning a basic user interface (UI), which consists mainly of text and menus. Publishing content within this framework is much less complex and therefore is better suited for a web-based framework.

For the automotive industry, HTML5 helps automakers meet several goals: draw in potential buyers by delivering the content and capabilities they want now and in the future; keep pace with release of new consumer devices, applications and services; and deliver a quality app experience in their vehicles with the capabilities and content consumers now expect while keeping costs down.

For developers creating in-car applications, HTML5 is perfect since these types of apps don’t require complex graphics or sophisticated UI and screen transitions with a lot of animations since they would be distracting to the driver. Some companies are even developing new technologies that allow developers to capitalize on the smartphone browser, which is constantly being improved, to eliminate the need of maintaining a web browser on the vehicle head unit. Plus as the vehicle ages, it will leverage the ever-increasing power and capability of future smartphones as drivers swap out their old phones for new ones.

Unlike native apps, the UI of HTML5 can be changed and pushed out instantly to the entire user base. They also cost less to develop than native apps. Instead of developing and supporting multiple specialized mobile variants, web-based apps streamline the effort since only one core app needs to be developed and maintained, saving time and money to produce and deploy. Essentially, HTML5 allows developers to build one app and deploy to any device with a browser.

HTML5 fosters a new community of innovation

Even though HTML5 is still evolving, there is a fast growing development community available for developers to leverage. In fact, the HTML5 ecosystem is now the largest ecosystem out there, both in terms of current development and of talent doing the development and the tools they use. HTML has an established base and Javascript is also one of the most popular programming languages. What’s more, many companies today are creating tools and libraries for the web.

With HTML5, there is no risk that it will suddenly disappear. Automakers, developers and in-vehicle infotainment designers have a set of standards that has already gained wide adoption and is quickly becoming ubiquitous. In fact, key modules are already available and driving HTML5’s adoption, but the complete standard is not expected to be fully satisfied for at least a few more years.

HTML5 is ready for the open road

Although it is still disputed, both web-based and native apps offer plenty of distribution benefits for developers and users alike. Meanwhile, as HTML5 gains adoption, there is a third, mixed approach where developers place a native “wrapper” around core web-based application. In its core, the hybrid approach is still primarily web-based development with some advantages over pure HTML. Leveraging this hybrid approach allows developers to take advantage of HTML5’s capabilities while standards are still being debated and ironed out.

The automotive infotainment industry is a perfect case study for demonstrating the value of HMTL5, and we can expect to see other industries take note and follow suit. The most important thing to remember is that HTML5 is at the center of modern mobile platforms, and a lot of effort is put into maintaining and improving the web browser for a superior user experience. As the user base continues to increase over the near-term, it will become the go-to technology for deploying applications.

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