HTML5 May be a Mistake for Facebook, But Not for Your Company

A comment by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday is being given a lot of coverage by the tech media. However, outside a specific context, for non-tech business decision makers, especially, the quote could be confusing — especially when interpreted to be true in all cases, and not specifically in Facebook’s situation.

Here’s the quote: “The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5 instead of native…We burnt two years.”

While it is easy to think of many Facebook mistakes far worse (that whole IPO fiasco, for instance), the point of this post is not that. The point of this post is to encourage businesses who may have a perfectly wonderful reason for using HTML5 to avoid associating the entire markup language with the phrase, “biggest mistake.”

First, a translation for real people: What Zuckerberg said was something like this: “We should have created applications that can be downloaded from Google Play or iTunes (a “native app”) instead of focusing on a browser-based version of Facebook, optimized for those devices. (web application or “web appexample:*)

Zuckerberg’s comment (and the lack of context provided by much of the reporting — and the re-reporting of the reporting) sounded like it was an indictment of HTML5, the markup language used currently to create many of the application-like interactive and animated features you see on websites. In many cases, HTML5 can be used in creating a website that is designed to mimic much of what you experience with a native app, but is accessible via the web browser on the mobile device.

What you should not take away from Facebook’s experience is the notion that in every situation, a native app is better than a web app. In Facebook’s case, it first seemed like a web app was the right thing to do because of advertising and commerce-related issues (for example, commissions to Apple on native app transactions).

But chances are, the types of needs for a mobile-optimized application will not require the flexibility and business-model needs that make Zuckerberg call the HTML5-coded, web app strategy a mistake.

Bottomline: Native apps make sense in some contexts. Web apps makes sense in other contexts. Don’t make your decision based on what some other company decided was right or wrong for them.

*Clarification: was not mentioned by Zuckerberg so it may have been confusing for me to use that as an example of a web app. Also, there is currently an iPhone and iPad native Facebook app.