Some view Facebook’s very public stance on the importance of native experiences (and the mistake of HTML5) as just Facebook news, with no real relevance to the rest of the world. However, if you dig a little deeper into Zuckerberg’s statements and the history of Facebook’s mobile execution, there are surprising parallels between Facebook’s approach to mobile and how most large enterprises initially approach mobile.
Many CIOs dismissed Zuckerberg’s comments as irrelevant to them. They should take heed, however, because Facebook’s conclusions are the same as thousands of other companies at a similar mobile strategy stage, and they can benefit from their learning curve and experience.
The real mistake Facebook and other enterprises that start down the HTML5 road make is failing to recognize important dynamics and patterns that happen when a new OS is introduced. Historically, the capabilities of a new platform are changing so rapidly that they are years from being standardized. This means that the best apps (the apps that take advantage of the groundbreaking capabilities of the new platform) are written to features of the OS.
The race for market share among device platforms is driving a tremendous amount of change and innovation at the operating system level, which far outpaces the velocity that a “standards” approach can ever achieve. Something as fundamental to the user experience as scrolling in a way that feels natural to the OS is very difficult to achieve outside of direct access to the device OS, as explained by Facebook in a post to the WC3 last week. Rapid innovation at the device OS level will continue for the foreseeable future because this is where device platforms will live or die.
One of the other challenges inherent in building HTML5 apps is that mobile browsers support the standard inconsistently. The “Ah ha” moment for many organizations happens when they start to build and deploy real apps to real users and realize that the union of HTML5 capabilities supported across mobile browsers is quite small, forcing them into “lowest common denominator” experiences, or spending engineering cycles on graceful degradation instead of groundbreaking features. As mobile becomes more central to an organization’s strategy, and as they see how these “lowest common denominator” apps actually perform with real users, it becomes clear that they cannot base their mobile strategy on HTML5.
There are definitely use cases where HTML5 in its current state can be useful. We’ve seen developers successfully build quick prototypes (where the user experience bar is low) with HTML5. And we’ve seen HTML5 used quite well within a Web view in native apps for non-interactive content. But for the interactive aspects of an application, only native development will yield the performance and user experience that mobile users demand. Mobile users have an expectation of immediate gratification when using an app because they are, by default, on the go.
It is surprising that Facebook, a company that tapped into something so viscerally human and transformative, could approach mobile (arguably the most intimate technology to date) with a focus on the efficiency of a standard instead of a focus on delivering an amazing, unique-to-mobile user experience. And even more surprising was the misreading of the state of OS technology and the ability for a standards approach to succeed. This is the typical mobile maturity path of a manufacturing company or a utility, not a disruptive tech giant. Even Web-era companies are just now getting their heads around how different the mobile paradigm is.
Facebook’s results from its native app strategy speak for themselves, providing twice as much content consumption from mobile users with its native iOS app. So the advice here is really for all companies, as mobile is becoming central to business strategy: Learn from Facebook’s path and focus on delivering the best, unique-to-mobile user experiences that can only be achieved through native apps. Thankfully, Facebook is public about its learning curve and course corrections, from which all companies can benefit.
Joseph Hill is COO of Xamarin, which offers MonoTouch for iOS and Mono for Android.