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HTML5's Potential as an SMB Superweapon

HTML5's Potential as an SMB Superweapon

The heat surrounding mobile applications need not be limited to large companies with money to spend on vast teams of app developers. With increasingly easy-to-use development tools as well as emerging standards like HTML5, smaller businesses with smaller budgets will find more opportunities to reach customers through their mobile devices.

By Dana Gardner E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
11/29/10 5:00 AM PT

The rapidly changing and fast-growing opportunity for more businesses to reach their customers and deliver their services via mobile applications is at a crossroads.

Over just the past two years, the demand for mobile applications on more capable classes of devices, such as smartphones and tablets, has skyrocketed. Now businesses need to figure out how they can get into the action.

Small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) especially need to reevaluate their application development and end-user access strategies to be able to deliver low-cost yet impactful applications to these newer devices. This goes for reaching employees, as well as partners, users and customers.

Hopefully, there's a shift in the skills required to put these applications on these devices and distribute them. The emphasis on capabilities is moving from hardcore coders -- with mastery of embedded platforms and tools -- to more mainstream graphical and scripting-skilled workers, more power-users than developers.

This sponsored podcast explores how mobile application development and the market opportunity are shifting, and how more businesses can quickly get into the mobile applications game and build out new revenue, share more data, and provide better direct customer access in the process.

Our panel consists of Roger Entner, senior vice president and head of research and insights in the telecom practice at the Nielsen Co., and Wayne Parrott, vice president for product development at Genuitec. The discussion is moderated by BriefingsDirect's Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.


Listen to the podcast (36:36 minutes).

Here are some excerpts:

Roger Entner: About 50 percent of all devices being sold in the US right now are smartphones. We expect smartphone penetration to be at about 50 percent by the end of next year. Almost 60 percent of smartphone owners are actually using applications. That's a huge percentage.

We're now at that sweet spot where it makes a lot of sense for businesses to have applications both for their consumers and their employees alike, because there is enough of an addressable base there.

We just launched our second edition of our Mobile Apps Playbook. But to quote numbers from there, year-over-year second quarter '09 to second quarter '10, smartphone penetration in the U.S. went from 16 percent to 25 percent.

Now, we have 3- and 4-inch screens that are actually readable. We're not just merely replicating a desktop experience, but actually tailoring it to the device and working with the strengths of the device rather than with the weaknesses.

The devices that we call now "smartphones" are little computers that today are as powerful as laptops a few years ago. I always say that this little thing you have in your hands, a smartphone, has far more computing power than was used by NASA to put men safely on the moon and bring them back alive.

And now Apple, Google, Microsoft and the others have software development kits (SDKs) out there that make app development a lot easier than it has ever been.

If you have a talented developer or a talented person in your department, he might be able to build that internally. Or, there are now myriad development shops out there that have the capabilities to build applications and charge only a few thousand dollars -- and that's single digit thousand dollars -- to have a capable, usable application.

There are a lot more people who know how to program these things, and have good ideas of applications. There is a really good market out there to put the two together.

Wayne Parrott: We're seeing a big move toward interest in mobile at the development side. What are the factors that's really led to the explosion of mobile apps? It's not only the smartphones and their capabilities, but we also look at the social changes in terms of behavior.

People more and more have a higher reliance on their smartphone and how they run their lives, whether they are at work or on the move. The idea is that they are always connected. They can always get to the data that they need.

Basically, we're taking their lifestyle away from their desktop and putting it in their pocket as they move around. More and more, we see companies wanting to reach out and provide a mobile presence for their own workforce and for their customers.

The question they ask is, "How do we do that? We already have a Web presence. People have learned about our brand, but they can't access this through their smartphones, or the experience is inferior to what they've come to expect on the smartphone."

We're seeing a big growth of interest in terms of just getting on to the mobile -- having a mobile presence for the SMBs.

If you take a look at the current state of native mobile app development, it's really not much better than it was five years ago. You still see a strong fragmented programming model base, different operating systems, and different hardware capability. It's still a mess. You pretty much have to pick a subset of devices that you want to focus on.

Entner: If we take one little step back, one of the genius things that Apple has done is turn the bookmarks into an application. About 60-70 percent of all applications on the iPhone or an Android are actually glorified HTML ports. So, it's not that difficult or that demanding on the application side.

One new trend is HTML5, which is slowly but surely approaching. There has been no finalized HTML5 standard [from the W3C], but a lot of Web browsers, and even mobile Web browsers, have now some HTML5 capabilities. And, it will really help in the development cycle for basic applications.

Where HTML5 will not to be able to help us, at least right now, is when we try to take advantage of location-based services because there is no standard yet. They're still arguing about this one, and especially high-performance graphics. But, on the standard application, HTML5 will take us miles forward and diminish the difference between the desktop and the mobile environment. ...

At the same time, all of the SDKs are getting more powerful and more user-friendly. So it's moving toward a more harmonized and more rapid development environment.

Parrott: Prior to HTML5, talking about mobile Web was pretty much a joke. Mobile Web was an afterthought in the phone market. You had these small, dinky displays. Most of them couldn't even render most standard HTML. What's new?

With the advent of the smartphone what you really saw was pretty much the Internet, as you experience it on your desktop, now on to your smartphone, but with even more capability.

Part of it is because HTML5 has stepped back and looked at what the future needed to be for a Web programming model. To become more of a common run-time, they had to address some of the key gaps between native hardware, APIs and Web. Much of those have really centered on one of the biggest digs that mobile Web had in the old days, when you were doing something, were connected, and then you lost your connectivity.

HTML5, right out of the box, has a specification for how to operate in an online, offline or disconnected type mode. Another thing was a rendering model, beyond just what you see on your desktop, that actually provides a high-end graphics type capability -- 2D, 3D types of programming. These are things that more advanced programs can take advantage of, but you can build very rich desktop type of experiences on the laptop.

Then, they went beyond what you're used to seeing on your desktop and took advantage of some of the sensors that these phones have now -- accelerometers, location capability, or geolocation. APIs are now emerging as a companion to HTML5, which is a spec that will span across your desktop to the mobile phone. It's a very capable specification.

In addition, there is the movement in terms of the standards body, especially the W3C, to address mobile device API. You will eventually program in a standard way and talk to your contacts list, your cameras, video, recording devices, and things like that. That will soon be available to us in a Web programming model.

What used to be exclusively the demand of the hardware API guys to do really low-level, high-performance bit twiddling is now going to be available to the general Web programming masses. That opens up the future for a lot more innovation than what we've seen in past.

There is enough HTML5 core already emerging that we could start to program to a subset of that spec and treat it as kind of a common run-time that you would program across pretty much all of the new emerging smartphones as we look forward.

Entner: It's only a matter of when ... HTML5 will come. Apple and Google are at the forefront and are already launching websites and services in it. You can get HTML5 YouTube, HTML5 Google, and even Yahoo mail access. You can have the Apple website in HTML5. It just depends on what is fully supported right now.

Some browsers support it, and some don't yet. On the mobile side, it also fully depends on what is supported. If you have the WebKit engine at the core of the browser that your device is using, HTML5 is pretty widely supported.

Parrott: As we've talked to more and more of our SMBs, one thing that stands out is that they don't have a lot of resources. They don't have a huge Web department. Their personnel wear a number of hats. Web development is just one of n things that one of the individuals may do in one of these organizations.

At Genuitec, we developed a product called "MobiOne Studio." The target user is anyone who has an idea or a vision for a mobile Web application or website. MobiOne is geared to provide a whole new intuitive type of experience, in which you just draw what you want. If you can develop PowerPoint presentations, you can create a mobile Web application using MobiOne.

You lay out your screens, you pane them all up, and then you wire them together with different types of transitions. From there, you can then immediately generate mobile Web code and begin to test it either in the MobiOne test environment, that's an emulated type of HTML5 environment, or you can immediately deploy it through MobiOne to your phone and test it directly on a real device.

With MobiOne Studio we recognized that the first thing that most companies want to do is just mobilize, just get a mobile presence, mobilize their websites, and have that capability. As Roger said a while ago, a lot of the apps you see out there are really glorified mobile websites and are packaged up in a binary format.

In MobiOne Studio's second phase, once you design and you like what you have, you have a progressive step that you can go from a very portable form to compile it down -- or cross-compile -- from HTML5 to whatever the native requirements are of that particular target app store. So, Google will have their app store, and Apple and RIM each has their own model. They are all fairly different models.

But with HTML5, you can go directly to your customers now. You can market to them directly. It depends on your way of interacting with your customers, but we have seen a number of novel approaches already from some of our customers. When any customer is in your store, you make it very easy for them to access your site, to make them aware of your mobile capabilities, lure them in, and get them connected that way.


Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients. He also produces BriefingsDirect sponsored podcasts. Follow Dana Gardner on Twitter. Disclosure: Genuitec sponsored this podcast.


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