Polar Mobile, one of Canada's fastest-growing mobile start-ups, is completely overhauling the way it does business, switching focus from building apps for specific smartphones and instead designing software that runs on any mobile device.
"We're rebuilding the core of our business," Polar CEO Kunal Gupta said. "Four years ago, nobody cared about browsing the mobile Web."
At the heart of the company's transition is HTML 5. The programming language has been around for some time, but it is now starting to attract businesses that want their content on all mobile devices, without having to build different apps for all those devices.
In essence, HTML5 allows programmers to write multimedia-rich Web pages that look and feel like mobile apps. The only difference is, whereas a developer needs to build different versions of the same app for every different flavour of smartphone and tablet, a single HTML5 app will run on pretty much any device equipped with a browser.
That distinction – the ability to build only one version of a mobile app – makes HTML5 perhaps the most important development in the world of mobile technology. But despite fanfare, the programming language is still the subject of much debate within the industry.
Polar's new pitch to clients is illustrative of what HTML5 supporters see as the programming language's potential. Instead of building apps, Polar will now sell a toolkit called MediaEverywhere, which lets customers design and customize HTML5 pages that function as apps. Customers can tweak certain aspects of the code to optimize it for various platforms, such as Apple's iOS or Google's Android, but the vast majority of the code remains the same regardless of platform.
In a way, that saves clients a lot of headaches. Rather than betting on winners and losers in the mobile race – Will iPhones always stay on top? Will BlackBerrys continue to lose steam? – a developer can build for multiple platforms at once. While the Web browsers on most mobile devices just a few years ago were not especially powerful, the ones on most modern smartphones and tablets can run HTML5 without too many problems. HTML5 is a fairly open language, meaning it isn't controlled by one major company.
Several big-name companies, including Google and Research In Motion, are big fans of HTML5. That's in part because HTML5 has the potential to even the playing field for applications. Currently, Apple's iOS platform has the biggest apps marketplace. But if developers switched to building a single app that could run on any device with a modern browser, the relative dearth of BlackBerry apps becomes much less of a weak spot for RIM.
But there are drawbacks. Even though HTML5 is a powerful enough language to facilitate such complex tasks as Web-based e-mail, it still can't mimic all the features of specific mobile apps. Facebook, for example, had previously released most of its mobile apps in HTML5. However the company recently launched its newest iPhone app using code specific to Apple's mobile platform. Other companies have decided they don't need to have a presence on every mobile platform, and instead have focused on building apps for just the top-selling smartphones and tablets, such as the iPhone and iPad, using code specifically designed for those devices.
"It's fair to say a war [is] going on, and it has been going on a long time," said Rick Byers, who works on Google's Chrome browser out of the company's Kitchener, Ont., office. "There's all sorts of tradeoffs."
Ultimately, the success of Polar and other firms that embrace HTML5 will depend on how averse their clients are to trying to predict the future. While it's difficult to tell which smartphone and tablet brands will be on top just a few years from now, it's a safe bet that HTML – the language originally used to build the World Wide Web – will still be around.
"The goal with HTML5 is to make sure people can have an awesome, smooth experience using any kind of device," Mr. Byers said. "We want there to be a common platform that's not tied to any specific company or any specific set of rules."
A PRIMER ON HTML5
Origins: HTML5 is the most recent iteration of HyperText Markup Language. The original HTML was designed as a means of displaying Web pages on a browser. But whereas earlier versions of the programming languages were relatively simple, focusing mostly on text and static images, HTML5 is much more powerful. Indeed, the language allows for a variety of features that turn Web pages into something resembling a software program. Online e-mail clients and other complex Web pages tend to take advantage of HTML5.
Apps: Recently, some developers have begun building applications for smartphones and tablets using HTML5. Traditional apps are built for specific platforms, such as Apple's iPhone, and are generally difficult to re-purpose for other devices, such as BlackBerrys. But HTML5 apps run in a Web browser, meaning they can be made to function on just about any computer without too many changes to the app. As such, HTML5 have the potential to significantly reduce the workload for developers. Still, many developers continue to build apps using programming languages specific to certain devices, in part because HTML5 cannot fully recreate all the features of a traditional app.
Stakes: Many major tech companies, such as Google, are big supporters of HTML5. Should the programming language come to replace traditional apps, the changes to the tech industry would be substantial. Currently, for example, there are far fewer apps available for the BlackBerry, compared to the iPhone. But if developers started building HTML5 apps that can run on all devices, rather than building specifically for certain phones or tablets, the BlackBerry app gap would become a much less important issue.
Omar El Akkad