Why native mobile apps beat HTML5 mobile apps

Web standards lack essential gesture-savvy, and of course can't take full advantage of the tablets' and smartphones' strengths

There's been a big debate in the media over whether HTML5 or native apps will win on the tablet. The answer is clear to me: Native apps will. Why? Because they can do more, and they can better take advantage of the touch and other native capabilities of the iPad.

In my everyday work, I find that I use mainly native apps on my iPad, even when a website is available (such as Twitter, YouTube, various news sites, Dropbox and Box.net, and several of my banking services). The Web "apps" I use tend to be cloud services that both run decently in the iPad's browser and have no equally capable app available. The Concur travel management system is an example, as is Adobe's SiteCatalyst Web analytics tool and U.S. Bank's banking site.

[ Hear Galen Gruman speak about the mobile-fueled consumerized IT trend Oct. 28 at the Southland Technology Conference (SoTec) in Long Beach, Calif. | InfoWorld picks the best office apps for the iPad and the best ofice apps for Android. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

As someone who uses a tablet several hours a day, as well as a smartphone and computer, I can tell you from experience that apps based on HTML and AJAX have real deficits due to their technology that limit when they can be used successfully on mobile devices.

For example, interface elements often assume the use of a mouse, so they aren't good at handling the gross motion and size of fingers versus mouse pointers. There are no equivalents for several scroll and selection gestures, so some standard HTML and AJAX interface elements -- such as drag handles -- don't work on an iPad or iPhone, Galaxy Tab or Droid.

Content blocks often don't fit well to the screen, and their nonadjusting margins make the text effectively too small to read easily (if you zoom in, you have to pan back and forth for each line). Gestures are also not supported, so navigating through rich HTML websites can be impossible.

Flash is no solution, either. On the two mobile platforms for which it is available (Android and the defunct WebOS), it has the same UI issues as HTML and AJAX, plus performance and functional incompatibilities that essentially restrict its use to watching videos and animations.

Given the glacial pace of HTML5's development, I don't see the Web's markup language becoming gesture-savvy any time soon. HTML, even with all the wonderful additions in HTML5, will be at a disadvantage.

Yes, HTML5 does make things better for mobile environments, thanks to its support for offline data storage and location detection. Those help, but they pale in comparison to what you can do natively.

That's not to say the Web is irrelevant. There are plenty of presentation-style apps that are perfectly fine in HTML on the iPad or other mobile device. And of course there are some native apps that are poor versions of the website -- Netflix is a great example of a native app gone horribly wrong. Bad apps are bad apps, after all. But you can't compare native apps like Keynote, Drawvis, GarageBand, or OmniSketch (all iOS apps) to what's available as Web apps.

Of course, the various mobile SDKs let developers blend native and Web apps, so the argument really should be about degree of use and fit for the task. Many banking apps follow this hybrid approach, for example, as do presentation-oriented apps such as Mellmo's RoamBI set of visualization tools. Not only does this approach make it easier to create native apps for mutiple platforms, it also allows more dynamic updating of information, which simply makes sense for any app that relies on cloud-based data or resources to function, such as stock tickers, news sites, and report generation. But it's the native part of the equation that lets an app be outstanding and natural to use.

This article, "Why native mobile apps beat HTML5 mobile apps," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.