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Yahoo!: the future is HTML5 (plus native code)

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For Yahoo!, the future of mobile applications is HTML5. But that doesn't mean they'll run solely on the web.

"I think you'll always have [mobile] applications with native components because you'll have some elements where native will be better optimized," Sandeep Gupta, the man who oversees Yahoo!'s mobile app development, tells The Reg. "Applications will get more and more complex — especially for devices like the iPad — so you'll have more and more pages and elements. The demands are going to be greater.

"I don't think you want to hamstring yourself to a particular language for the sake of it. You want to use the right tool for the job. HTML5 works very well for content and navigation, but native will give you access to certain hardware features and effects you can't do purely with HTML5."

Next to Google's all-web-all-the-time rhetoric, this is a welcome taste of reality.

Even when Yahoo! does opt for a pure web application, it's considering the possibility of distributing such tools through existing mobile app stores, such as the Apple App Store and Google's Android Market, places that offer, yes, thousands of downloadable applications. This amounts to Yahoo! uploading little more than url links to these marketplaces, which have become the main avenue for locating mobile services.

Yahoo! just unveiled new HTML5 incarnations of its Yahoo! Mail and Yahoo! News services for the iPhone and the iPod touch, and though these have no native components — they operate solely inside the browser — the company may distribute them (or, rather, links to them) through the Apple App Store. "This is something we're talking about," Gupta says. "There's some question about whether the user will appreciate this."

Regardless, Yahoo! — one of the web's most visited destinations — will continue to straddle the line between web apps and native apps. On the iPad, Yahoo! offers a native Entertainment application for viewing all sorts of Yahoo! web content, including television listings, videos, news, comics, and book reviews.

"With Entertainment, we pre-generate a bunch of HTML5 templates and store them locally on the device," Gupta explains. "So that when we want to load a page, we don't have to download all the formatting for the page, just the content. All the chrome and the imagery [framing the content] is already there, and the raw text and content can come down much quicker."

As the company uncloaked its purely web-based Mail and News apps for the iPhone and iPod touch, it also introduced native versions of Mail and its Yahoo! Messenger for Android phones. But this is more of a temporary measure. Though the latest version of Android — 2.2, aka Froyo — offers a much-improved browser, Gupta says, earlier versions of its WebKit engine aren't quite suited to pure HTML5. Yes, following Google's lead, he's using HTML5 as a catch-all term for all sorts of modern web standards, including HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript.

"Android is a bit trickier only because its WebKit rendering pipeline isn't as efficient. But 2.2 is a big step forward."

With the arrival of Android 2.2, Yahoo! is planning purely web-based versions of Mail and other apps for the platform. And it's working on similar versions for the iPad.

Yes, even with pure web apps, code must be tailored for specific devices. "We do a lot of customization to render specifically for the display," Gupta says. "Not only to control look and feel but also formatting and font size. These kinds of things are specific to the device."

But the differences between browsers, Gupta says, is shrinking — even when it comes to disparate HTML5 implementations. "Everyone is pretty much moving to WebKit," he says. "That makes our life a lot easier."

No love for Firefox and Opera then — let alone IE9. But in addition to Apple and Google, RIM BlackBerry and Nokia have opted for WebKit. No word on when exactly Yahoo!'s "HTML5" apps for Android and iPad will arrive. But the company tells us "soon." ®

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