Posted By ] Bengi Korkmaz, Richard Lee and Ickjin Park
An arcane-sounding change with potentially significant implications for consumers and businesses is under way on the web: the shift to a new generation of HTML, the programming standard that underpins the internet. Senior executives, regardless of industry, should take note; like the exponential growth of device-specific applications, this evolution of HTML will further boost the power of mobile devices, accelerating changes in the way people consume content and the potential use of smartphones and tablets as both a marketing platform and a productivity tool.
The next generation of the internet standard will essentially allow programs to run through a web browser rather than a specific operating system. That means consumers will be able to access the same programs and cloud-based content from any device – personal computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet – because the browser is the common platform. This ability to work seamlessly anytime, anywhere, on any device could change consumer behavior and shift the balance of power in the mobile-telecommunications, media and technology industries. It will create opportunities and present challenges. This article seeks to provide a primer on these changes for senior executives, who may feel the effects of the move toward ‘web-centricity’ much sooner than they think.
In some ways, the evolution of mobile technology resembles the battle among PC makers in the 1980s. While today we take it for granted that Microsoft’s Windows operating system underpins hardware from countless manufacturers, it wasn’t always that way. Remember the operating systems that powered the Commodore 64, the biggest-selling PC of all time, or the Apple II? Before the emergence of Microsoft’s DOS and then Windows, PC users faced a tough decision about which technology to adopt, because that determined the games and utilities they could use, as well as the general usefulness of their computers. The same occurs today with mobile devices. Users must weigh the hardware and software merits and commit themselves to a technology, whether it’s a device from manufacturers such as Apple or Research in Motion, the ever-increasing array of tablets and smartphones running Google’s Android operating system or, soon, offerings from Nokia running on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system.
The next generation of HTML, known as HTML5, may narrow these differences between mobile devices. HTML5, the most significant evolution yet in web standards, is designed to allow programs to run through a web browser, complete with video and other multimedia content that today require plug-in software and other work-arounds. In theory, this will make the browser a universal computing platform: without leaving it, users could do everything from editing documents to accessing social networks, watching movies, playing games or listening to music. Not only would any device with a web browser have these capabilities, but consumers would also have access to all content stored remotely in the cloud independent of locations and devices.
That’s the first reason web-centricity holds particular promise for mobile devices. The second is that it helps overcome the relatively weak processing power of smartphones and tablets compared with PCs and laptops. It’s partly this lack of horsepower that has fuelled the explosive growth in applications (or ‘apps’) to optimise the performance of specific devices: the average smartphone user now spends more than 11 hours a month using apps, more time than either web browsing or talking, according to a March 2011 study by research firm Zokem. HTML5 has the potential to improve the mobile experience – its specifications enable browsers to locally store 1,000 times more data than they currently do, so users can work when offline – writing e-mails, for example – and their devices will automatically update when a network becomes available. What’s more, programs and applications run faster because complex processing tasks are handled by network servers, although mobile-network capacity must go on growing to deal with heavier data demands.
Of course, not all programs are suited to running through browsers, nor is HTML5 the first would-be universal platform to emerge: Sun Microsystems (purchased by Oracle in 2010) promised that with its Java language, programmers could “write once, run anywhere”. Things haven’t worked out that way. And there’s never a guarantee that one kind of standard will prevail. The rate at which developers are writing apps and consumers are buying them is dizzying, and ingrained behaviour can be hard to change. Web-centricity may raise security fears among users because programs are no longer installed on specific devices and because data is stored remotely. And there could be fragmentation issues with both the standard and the browsers – after all, existing ones, such as Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox, don’t all treat the current standard, HTML4, the same way.
Despite these possible headwinds, the number of HTML5 websites is increasing by the day. Hardware manufacturers are lining up behind HTML5, and the development community is undertaking efforts to safeguard data in the cloud at a very fast pace. We therefore estimate that more than 50 per cent of all mobile applications will switch to HTML5 within three to five years – and the rate of transition could be considerably higher and faster. No matter how quickly the shift occurs, it will affect both consumers and businesses significantly.