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Native Apps “Versus” HTML5 (Part 2)

What are the pros and cons of using either environment for tablet and smartphone publishing?

By John Parsons

In Part 1, I explored some of the strengths and weaknesses of using native apps for content publishing. The browser approach has a different impact, but neither “side” is categorically better or worse for publishing professionals.

The HTML5 ApproachAPP-HTML5-B

HTML5 is not all that mysterious. It’s simply the latest version of the markup language for rendering human-readable content on the Web. Managed by a working group of the W3C (www.w3.org), the not-yet-official standard will address a host of functional and aesthetic issues common to Web sites using HTML 4.01 and XHTML. For publishers, it represents an improvement in visual layout quality over ordinary HTML. Combined with CSS 3 (another pending Web standard), JavaScript, and Web fonts, HTML5 will provide greater typographic flexibility and control.

Like previous versions, HTML5 is highly flexible and can re-flow at multiple screen sizes. It is also central to the “responsive design” trend on the Web, allowing content to be designed once, and then dynamically re-sized and even reformatted using CSS 3, to display well on any device. Unlike its predecessor, HTML5 includes native support for audio, video, and other elements previously supported by plugins like Flash. There are video file format issues still under discussion, but these will be ironed out as the standard evolves.

A very important strength of HTML5 is its ability to handle constantly changing, need-to-know information. While this can potentially be done in an app—using a browser-like window or as a transparent overlay—a browser environment is often better suited for publishing live, constantly changing content.

Another plus for HTML5 is that it circumvents the digital newsstand environment required for apps. At first glance, this would seem to be an obvious cost savings, since it lets publishers avoid the charges levied by Apple, Amazon, and others. It also frees subscription departments and advertisers to conduct commerce freely, and lets the circulation and audience development departments work without interference. Of course the downside is the loss of discoverability that digital newsstands provide. Publishers who opt out of the app environment need to know how to market their tablet and smartphone content without the help of Apple and company.

For some publishers, a browser environment also makes it easier to integrate one’s publication with third party services, such as social media. This distinction is less than it once was, however, as apps have become increasingly connectable to the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn.

Some of the disadvantages of HTML5 are also temporary. Some early adopters discovered that the standard lacked a viable payment model, and that apps—despite the percentage taken by digital newsstands—offered an easier way to make transactions. However, as publishers improve their own secure Web payment procedure, this issue will be diminished.

Another short-term downside to HTML5 is the current limitation on local or offline data storage. Some operating systems limit browser-based storage to 5–10MB, while apps can store more data for offline consumption. There are clever mobile programmers that can push the mobile Web to be extraordinarily app-like, but there will be a learning curve for mainstream Web developers.

HTML5 and CSS 3 have one Achilles’ heel that apps do not: browser compatibility. For many mobile devices, this does not pose a serious threat, since these generally have current versions of Safari, Chrome, Firefox, or even Internet Explorer. However, if desktop computers are included in a publishers’ media mix, then older browsers may interfere with the HTML5 experience.

Fortunately, service providers are beginning to offer HTML5 content delivery that is increasingly app-like. This includes page turning and other interface features, as well as multimedia handling, authentication and subscriptions. Although apps are likely to persist, the multi-screen potential of HTML5 will increasingly be a viable alternative.

Conclusions

Few publishers have the internal resources to create their own innovative HTML5/CSS3 solution—or develop complex native apps for an increasing number of devices, screen sizes, and operating systems. Even fewer have the means to do both. For the time being, the best course is for a publisher to understand its subscribers’ needs and reading habits, focus on its core mission—content—and find a reliable service provider that has had success in delivering engaging experiences to a multi-screen world.


JP_2010John Parsons is the Principal of IntuIdeas (www.intuideas.com), a writing, research, and consulting firm in Washington State. He was formerly the Editorial Director for The Seybold Report.