Earlier this month I compared apps that combine HTML5 and native technologies to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, arguing that sometimes it’s best to keep things separate instead of creating a lackluster jumble. Though the post was mainly pro-native technologies, the same argument can be applied to apps built completely with HTML5. Or, to continue with the confectionary metaphor: Chocolate and peanut butter can both be delicious.
Sencha, a startup that builds HTML5 app development tools, is trying to prove that HTML5 apps are the future through a new competition offering $10,000 in cash as well as an iPhone, iPad, Galaxy S3, Nexus 10, Surface tablet, and a pass to the SenchaCon in 2013. The company, which claims half of the Fortune 100 companies as clients, has tasked developers with building HTML5-based apps that surpass what is available on IOS and Android.
Developers will be building apps in a number of categories, including Weather, Calculator, Camera, Calendar, and Camera apps, among others. The contest is based on a simple premise, as captured by its name: HTML5 is ready. And, on top of putting its money where its mouth is, Sencha has developed a Facebook app – “Fastbook” – with its own framework to show that HTML5 apps don’t have to suck.
After testing Fastbook over the last few days, I’ve concluded Sencha has met its goal. Unlike Facebook’s old, primarily HTML5-based app, the new version loads quickly, its interface doesn’t jitter or stutter, and scrolling – the bane of many a Web app – is smooth.
Sencha’s hope is that other developers will deliver apps of similar quality by building on top of its frameworks. That developers can build calculator or weather or camera apps with HTML5 technologies isn’t new – that they might be able to do so without hiccups on any HTML5-compliant platform (read: every major platform) is.
Unfortunately, while these HTML5-based apps are intellectually interesting and offer some evidence to the idea that HTML5 will be the development tool of the future, it’s hard to imagine the average user choosing, say, Fastbook over the official Facebook app. Ditto for an HTML5-based stocks app, or to-do list, or calendaring app. Why? Because of the App Store.
Apple has created bottleneck with the App Store, essentially cutting off any app that doesn’t pass through its system. Though users can add Web pages to their home screens via Safari, it’s probably fair to say that many people aren’t aware of this functionality. The same holds true for other platforms: Windows Phone and Windows RT install apps from the Marketplace and the Windows Store, and the average Android user sticks with Google Play or the Amazon Appstore.
Developers can skirt this restriction by pushing their HTML5-built app into a UIWebView container and going through the App Store that way, but that’s simply perpetuating Apple’s restrictive policies. The App Store review process, as any app developer, company head, or reporter can tell you, is unpredictable, frustrating, and often glacially slow. Shipping HTML5-based apps is supposed to be the opposite.
Not that any of this is Sencha’s fault. As I said, the company’s Fastbook app was surprisingly responsive and, in my experience, beat out Facebook’s own offering. I’m sure that some developers will be able to do the same with the categories of Sencha’s competition, and I’m looking forward to testing these apps and seeing how they compare to those built with native technologies.
But this doesn’t help the average person who likely doesn’t even know that he can add Web pages to his home screen. For now, HTML5 remains an exciting promise of the future, not a solution ready for the present.