Facebook abandons HTML5 on iOS: A shift or exception?

Developers balance HTML5's broad reach with the performance and specialty capabilities of native code

We've been hearing the constant drumbeat of HTML5 for a few years now, with its seemingly incessant march to dominance in developing rich Internet applications. We've seen retreats by key technologies like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight along the way, while major providers such as Adobe, Google, Apple, and Microsoft endorse HTML5.

But HTML5 has just suffered a setback. Facebook, citing performance issues, has redone its iOS application in native Objective-C code and backed away from its previous HTML5 code. Facebook developer Jonathan Dann notes that HTML5 has allowed Facebook to write once for multiple mobile platforms, but its iOS app was "falling short" in delivering a fast, reliable experience: "One of the biggest advantages we've gained from building on native iOS has been the ability to make the app fast. Now, when you scroll through your news feed on the new Facebook for iOS, you'll notice that it feels much faster than before."

In other words, HTML5's multiplatform support didn't justify the lesser user experience on the key iOS platform.

So does Facebook's experience mean HTML5 will go down in history as another overhyped technology that failed to meet expectations, like Apple's legendary Lisa computer or virtual reality? Perhaps not. Defenders still abound, including Facebook itself. "Facebook is not moving away from HTML5, as we use it for our mobile site, which gets more traffic than our native apps," a company representative says. "Now that we've achieved scale, we're focusing on diving deep into individual platforms and, in the case of iOS, that meant leveraging more Objective-C code."

Naturally, the World Wide Web Consortium, which is overseeing development of HTML5, remains steadfast in its HTML5 support. "HTML5 is the most interoperable format in the industry, working on thousands of devices with sufficient function and performance for almost all applications. That is why we have seen widespread adoption," says W3C representative Ian Jacobs.

For new technologies, it is common that performance of new features will improve over time, Jacobs adds. But he concedes there are "limited cases" where proprietary solutions are needed. "Certain applications have such demanding performance needs or specialized platform requirements that they must be hard-coded to the device. As we improve performance and broaden our set of APIs, we expect that will diminish in time."

Strategy Analytics analyst Josh Martin doesn't see HTML5 losing any luster, but he doesn't see it becoming dominant anytime soon. He notes that in an April 2012 developer survey his research firm conducted, the interest in HTML5 remains steady and is in fact growing, with primary support among developers growing from 5.7 percent this year to 10 percent next year. In addition to those who primarily support HTML5, another 33 percent of developers in the survey said they also support HTML5 this year in a nonprimary capacity.

Many companies are experimenting with HTML5, Martin notes: "For some companies -- such as publishers -- HTML5 makes sense because those apps don't require the latest APIs, access to all the device's hardware, or constant connectivity. These attributes are ideal for an HTML5 app. However, broadly speaking, Strategy Analytics believes that native apps remain the primary way through which apps will be developed for the next few years, with an increasing reliance on hybrid apps [which use HTML5 and native code]."

Despite Facebook's move to native programming on iOS, the standardization benefits offered by HTML5 continue to be a primary attraction for developers. Expect them to continue using HTML5 -- except when they determine that native code is the better option -- and expect HTML5 to keep marching onward.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.