After popping the bubble of expectation round Facebook’s financial performance, Mark Zuckerberg has been taking the hype out of hypertext.
The chief executive and co-founder said the worst mistake Facebook ever made was a decision to use the latest web tools of Hypertext Markup Language 5 (HTML5) to build a mobile version of the social network.
Facebook lost two years in development work and delayed its ability to earn money from users accessing the social network on smartphones and tablets – an important reason for its plummeting post-IPO share price – because the suite of web tools “just wasn’t there” yet, according to Mr Zuckerberg.
Facebook’s shares rallied after an improved set of results last week but they remain under pressure as the first set of lock-ups on employee shares expire on Monday, potentially adding 230m shares, or roughly 11 per cent of the existing free-float, to the market.
There is more, however, to Mr Zuckerberg’s comments, made at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference last month, than just the geeky regret of a software developer. They represent the latest setback for a technology that many believed would be used to produce the next generation of web-based content.
Consumers’ move towards mobile has led to the rise of so-called “native” apps as a way for publishers to distribute content on smartphones and tablets.
Facebook, for example, eventually decided to go “native” – it developed an app for the iPhone using Apple’s own tools, so that the programme would be native to the iOS operating system and would take full advantage of its capabilities.
Facebook is also developing a native app for Android devices.
However, given the degree of control Apple exerts over its app store, some publishers and technology companies have been backing HTML5 as an openly-available alternative.
The Financial Times was the first newspaper to create an HTML5 app to replace its native app for the iPhone, giving it more control over subscriber revenues and data.
The New York Times followed suit this month with an HTML5 web app for the iPad.
As well as avoiding paying 30 per cent of native app sales to app store owners, the main appeal of HTML5 to developers and publishers is its cross-platform capability.
With Apple, Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, Research In Motion and others supporting the standard, developers can create one web app to work across different devices and operating systems, cutting down on development time and costs.
As Mr Zuckerberg points out, there are still many technical hurdles for HTML5 to surmount to compete with apps. “It’s not that HTML5 is bad, I’m actually long-term really excited about it,” he said.
“But the level of mobile experiences that are out there are just so good that good enough is [just] not good enough.”
In June, Wooga, a German developer of social games, stopped further work on its first HTML5 game, Magic Land Island. It said it had proved more complex and time-consuming than native apps and there were problems using sound in games.
Backers of HTML5 say the technology just needs more time and may yet live up to its potential.
“HTML5 has been seen as the answer to all of mankind’s woes and that was never the intent,” says Ben Forta, director of developer relations at software maker Adobe, which makes tools for developers to write HTML5-based content.
Al Hilwa, applications development software analyst with the IDC research firm, says: “What Mark Zuckerberg was saying was that they made the wrong bet too early in the game . . . that doesn’t mean [HTML5] is not suited for other applications, it just means it wasn’t suited for theirs.”
The full benefits of HTML5, therefore, remain elusive. It will work well for some apps but content creators will still be paying Apple and others their 30 per cent cut to develop more complex, native apps that are tied to the latest hardware in devices.
“The latest and greatest new features, such as NFC, Augmented Reality and wireless charging, are going to be exploited first by native apps,” says Al Hilwa.
“It’s still going to be a two-tier world in mobile.”
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