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Return of native: HTML5's enterprise battle

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Open ... And Shut Consumer smartphone apps may get all the press, not to mention $15bn in market size by 2013, but enterprise smartphone apps may well prove to be the bigger market.

This may be particularly true of HTML5 apps, which have been all the rage at Facebook, the Financial Times, and other consumer-facing app developers. The reason? HTML5, at least in the near term, likely isn't good enough on its own to appease consumers, but may be more than adequate to please enterprise IT departments.

There's no question that consumer technology is currently ascendant over enterprise technology, at least from an innovation perspective. The reason is money. As Mark Bigham of US defence contractor Raytheon suggests: "The [consumer technology] industry’s annual investment here is well over 1,000 times greater than the military’s."

With that kind of investment leverage, it makes sense to embrace consumer technology within the military – or the enterprise.

As The Economist reports, more and more enterprises are setting up internal app stores as they embrace the current app revolution, but with a corporate flavour. Such apps are the new intranet, delivering content and other services employees formerly would have accessed via portals and other clunky enterprise software.

HTML5 will play a significant role in this enterprise embrace of consumer-ish apps.

In fact, it already is. Just look at Sencha, an HTML5 tools vendor with an impressive customer list. The company has a solid and growing business with consumer-facing app developers, but based on conversations I've had with those privy to the company's finances, Sencha is making the bulk of its money with enterprise developers. The same holds true for Appcelerator. Though it isn't focused on HTML5 apps per se, it has a growing business with HTML5 development, and mostly on the enterprise side.

Evans Data reports that roughly 60 per cent of enterprise developers are using HTML5 or Flash for mobile applications today. Expect that number to grow, and to skew toward HTML5 over Flash.

It's easy to see why. Enterprise IT used to be able to dictate the types of devices it would support on its networks or for its services. No more. Employees have run amok with their preferred consumer mobile devices, and enterprise IT is sprinting to keep up. With 73 per cent of enterprise developers expecting to move enterprise apps to mobile by early 2012, according to Evans, the only viable way to accomplish this is with HTML5 apps.

And while HTML5 still struggles to deliver as slick an experience as native app development with Java (Android) or Objective-C (iOS), this isn't much of a factor behind the firewall. Enterprise IT is mostly concerned with delivering a good enough user experience on a cross-platform basis. HTML5 is perfect for this, particularly since it marries well to the web development expertise already extant in most enterprises, in contrast to the dearth of Objective-C expertise.

It's therefore no surprise that some are predicting HTML5 will dominate enterprise mobility by 2013. Or that Salesforce and other leading enterprise technology vendors (Dell, IBM and others) are jumping into the HTML5 game.

Still, there's a concern that these enterprise vendors, notoriously bad with UX, will retard HTML5's progress. In the consumer world, it's not good enough to be "good enough". If the enterprise settles on a second-best option, its consumer employees will likely avoid enterprise apps.

The key, then, will be for enterprises to blend HTML5 and native code, similar to how Facebook and other consumer technology companies have. This is very similar to the approach enterprises (and consumer technology companies) have taken to open source, as well, settling on a a hybrid approach.

In short, the future for enterprise IT will have a heavy dose of HTML5, tempered by an equally strong dose of native code. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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