What HTML5 Hath Wrought

“Build once, run everywhere” has been the goal of many platforms, although most recently, the motto was used for Java. It has rarely been completely true. In Java’s case, “build once, test everywhere” was closer to the mark.

A true universal platform offers many financial benefits: It removes uncertainty about future hardware; extends the application lifespan; extends the business’ ROI on investment in software development; and lowers the cost of IT development, operations, and maintenance.

Support for multiple platforms has long been recognized as an efficiency killer in IT shops. At the same time, there has been enormous pressure from business users for IT to support the latest hardware. Of late, it’s especially personal with mobile smartphones and tablets.

Better Value Proposition

When the iPhone was first introduced, Steve Jobs said that its apps would be created as Web applications, but developers quickly found that the original iPhone/iOS 1 Mobile Safari browser wasn’t up to the task. When the iOS SDK was released, and the App Store opened, many IT shops began to develop custom iOS applications in response to demand from users, either in-house or by contracting the development out.

When Android phone users started asking for the same applications, the IT shops had to start almost from scratch to create Android versions.

As the HTML5 standard matured and Mobile Safari and other browsers started to support it, the difference between what could be accomplished using Web applications and native applications shrank, and the remaining items could be taken care of with frameworks such as the free open source PhoneGap. Now development shops can not only create their iPhone apps to run in Mobile Safari but also make the same Web application work on all HTML5-compliant browsers, whether desktop or mobile.

This is a far better value proposition than creating native apps for every mobile platform, and it can serve tablets as well as smartphones, desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

One huge “but” in all this is that many developers have yet to learn Web technologies at all, much less the latest HTML5 features and capabilities. Another huge “but” is that there’s currently a wide variation in feature implementations among HTML5-capable browsers, with Mobile Safari in the lead and Internet Explorer 9 far in the rear.

A universal Web application can be written now, but it takes some feature-sniffing and careful coding to make it work well on each possible browser. This requires extensive testing and a rather good Web developer. Alternatively, there are tools and frameworks available for generating universal HTML5 applications.

On the other hand, if the definition of “universal” is restricted to what works now — and the other platforms are allowed to catch up in their HTML5 support in the future — then using handwritten HTML5 (with its attendant CSS3 and JavaScript) as a universal application platform is at least on the horizon.

Productivity Benefits of a Universal Platform

A Web-based universal platform for enterprise applications can make employees more productive because business applications can be used anywhere, from any supported device, with no setup required.

This is a compelling benefit for workers who often walk around their business, as long as WiFi coverage is supplied in the facility. Examples include nurses in a hospital using a medical records system or supervisors in a plant using an inventory system.

With the addition of wireless broadband through a 3G or 4G carrier, this becomes a compelling benefit for workers who often drive offsite, such as salespeople, delivery people, and construction supervisors.

Competitive Advantages of a Universal Platform

A Web-based universal platform gives a business a competitive advantage because it gives customers and partners the interactive experiences they want today on the mobile platforms they use today — not in three years, when IT gets through its backlog.

If developers are busy maintaining desktop applications for up to three platforms, Web applications for up to five browsers, and native mobile applications for three or more smartphones and tablets, they are never going to have time to produce anything new to meet business needs and add business value.

You might think that supporting mobile devices isn’t worth the effort, but your employees, partners, and customers likely disagree. Mobile today is like the Web was in 1995: You have to go there, and the sooner you do, the better you look to your users. Don’t let the competition get there first.

At the same time, you don’t want your mobile applications to look half-baked. This is an area where careful attention to the styles, animations, and effects available through HTML5 can add considerable polish to a Web application.

Why Use Standards?

HTML5 can be a universal platform, meaning that HTML5 applications will be able to run in cross-platform and cross-browser environments. HTML5 is widely (indeed, universally) accepted, and W3C standards mean these applications should continue to work even as hardware evolves since the burden of hardware compatibility for these standards falls on the Web browser developers, not on your IT department.

In other words, you win.

Richard Rabins is Co-Chairman of Alpha Software and Martin Heller is the company's vice president of technology and education.

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