HTML5 buzz weakens the power of mobile apps

August 12, 2011

By Robert Cyran
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Smartphones powered by Apple and Google operate using hundreds of thousands of highly specialized Web programs. That’s what has allowed the two firms to lock up most of the premium cellphone market. Yet a new Web standard, called HTML5, is gaining traction and buzz, not least because its biggest supporters say it will allow a bit of an end-run around these walled gardens.

In general, Web browsers on phones haven’t been ideal for accessing content. Only programs installed directly on gadgets have taken full advantage of handsets’ address books or knowledge of a users’ location. So these applications, or apps, caught on and set off virtuous cycles, attracting both users and developers to the iPhone and Android operating systems.

But consumers would be better off if they could switch phones easily. And developers don’t relish having to make multiple versions of the same programs just so they can run on competing phones. Content providers also don’t like how app stores typically take a percentage of any revenue they charge. Finally, websites like Facebook don’t want Apple or Google acting as gatekeepers.

This is where HTML5 comes in. The newest version of the core language for presenting content on the Web is still in development, but bits are emerging. It’s gradually leveling the playing field, making it so new browsers can do many things only apps currently do well, such as location-based services. And developers like the idea of making one program that runs across many devices. As a result, some 2.1 billion mobile devices are expected to use HTML5 browsers by 2016, reckons ABI Research.

So does that suggest an imminent up-ending to the tech world, as Roger McNamee, partner in venture capital firm Elevation Partners, recently claimed? Not quite. Some functions, like games, will still be done better via apps than Web browsers. Moreover, with Apple and Google members of the consortium promoting the standard, they presumably see a benefit from pushing it.

The reigning smartphone barons may lose some ability to lock users in. But both have a long-term interest in encouraging the most rapid adoption of next-generation mobile devices possible. That should translate into more sales for Apple and advertising for Google. And, anyway, by the time the standard fully catches on — say in five years — they will probably have sewn up the whole market anyway.

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