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Are Facebook?s problems with HTML5 an anomaly?

While companies have quickly embraced HTML5 technology over the past couple of years as a way to provide app-like experiences on the mobile Web, not all have had the same success, pointing to the need for a better understanding of when and where not to use the technology.

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg placed some of the blame for the company?s slow momentum in mobile on a decision to jump on HTML5. Not long after, an HSN executive speaking at the Mobile Marketer Summit: Holiday Focus 2012 said that hybrid apps are one of the driver?s behind the retailer?s success in mobile.

?Success with HTML5 has been a function of dedicating "A" resources to it,? said Sam Abadir, chief technology officer at appMobi, Lancaster, PA.

?Facebook by all accounts, didn't make mobile its top priority early on,? he said. ?As a consequence, they underinvested in their mobile experience (i.e. HTML5) over the past two years.

?With other companies such as Netflix, LinkedIn, and Instagram, they committed fully and put their best resources on it. Facebook tried to recycle too many things from their desktop technology into HTML5 instead of starting with an approach fully optimized for mobile.?

Up to the challenge?
With Facebook?s stock having lost value over the past few months and the company taken a beating in the press for not doing enough to take advantage of its growing mobile user base, Mr. Zuckerberg reportedly addressed these issues at a conference last week. The social media?s top executive said that the company lost two years as a result of a decision to focus its mobile efforts almost exclusively on HTML5.

Facebook eventually realized that the performance of the Web-based apps it built was not at the same level of native apps and changed course. For example, Facebook recently introduced a new, much faster iOS app.

Some are not so convinced that Facebook's approach is to blame for its failure with HTML5 and that the social media's example points more to the limitations of the technology.

In particular, in apps where user experience is key to success, HTML5 may not be up to the challenge.    

"I don't think Facebook made any specific mistakes in their approach to HTML5," said Nolan Wright, chief technology officer and co-founder of Appcelerator, Mountain View, CA. 

"I believe the lesson is that if Facebook, with their extensive mobile experience and world-class engineering team, cannot make it work, then companies should be cautious about making HTML5 the foundation of their mobile strategy," he said.

Making mobile a focus
A different HTML5 story was told by HSN?s OVP of technology Ed Deutscher, who said at the Mobile Marketer Summit in New York last week that one of the keys to its success in mobile is that all of its apps are hybrid native-HTML5 apps.

The hybrid app strategy has enabled the retailer to blend in some native pieces but also to easily integrate content. The HSN apps offer live-streaming of HSN?s on-air content.

One of the lessons to be learned from Facebook?s failed experiment with HTML5 is that you only get out of mobile experiences what you put into them.

?Facebook didn't fail because of HTML5, they failed because the mobile experience wasn't their top priority,? Mr. Abadir said. ?They didn't obsess about the user experience like others did and they were willing to compromise the experience in order to reuse their desktop HTML5 frameworks ? they needed to start fresh.?

No single answer
Marketers? relative success with HTML5 can also depend on the app publisher?s goals.

For example, native apps do certain things very well, such as push notifications, device integration and navigation. And, HTML5 can present certain issues, such as the need to constantly refresh and reload content.

?In the end, it comes down to the goals of the app publisher and user expectations on performance,? said Marci Weisler, chief operating officer at EachScape, New York. ?Mobile is fragmented and there's not a single answer.?

However, developing native apps is also very expensive and they only target one specific platform such as iOS or Android.

As a result, hybrid apps have been embraced by companies such as HSN and others, because they enable marketers to leverage those native capabilities that are most important and pair them with HTML5 technology to create easily accessible apps.

?Some believe mobile apps built with HTML5 are the magic bullet,? said Christopher Willis, chief marketing officer at Verivo Software, Waltham, MA. ?The central question with HTML5 for enterprise mobility is how to gain the best of both worlds: the rich user experience, native device capabilities, security and back-end functionality of a native app, and the ability to leverage Web talent and content wrapped up in the movement toward HTML5.

?We believe HTML5 will be successful in allowing mobile app developers to design the user interface for their apps, provided they complement their project with an enterprise mobility platform,? he said.

With the average time needed to develop hybrid apps dropping and HTML5-based experiences improving all the time, it appears likely that the momentum toward HTML5 will continue despite Facebook?s failed strategy.

It is also clear that mobile Web use is growing, pointing to the need for marketers to have strong browser-based experiences for their customers.

?HTML5 won't be the limiter if you make the user experience paramount and put your best resources on it,? appMobi's Mr. Abadir said. ?In comparison to Facebook which recycled desktop technology, Badoo used a mobile only HTML5 framework called jqMobi and found great success with it for the 160 million user base.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York