Mozilla on HTML5: Here's what Zuckerberg really meant to say

Mozilla on HTML5: Here's what Zuckerberg really meant to say

Summary: There's more to the Facebook founder's view of HTML5 than seeing it as a 'mistake' in development focus, says Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich, who laid out to ZDNet his reasons why the tension between native apps versus web technology will eventually fade away.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seemed to take a potshot at HMTL5 on Tuesday, when he said the social-networking company had spent too much time working on that technology than on native apps.

"The biggest mistake we made, as a company, was betting too much on HTML5 rather than native," he told TechCrunch's Michael Arrington during a fireside chat.

Brendan Eich
Brendan Eich. Image: Stephen Shankland/CNET

But dig a bit deeper, and Facebook's chief is actually keener on HTML5 than it first appears, according to Brendan Eich, the chief technology officer at Mozilla, a key backer of the web technology.

After that widely quoted sentence, Zuckerberg went on to say: "It's not that HTML5 is bad. I'm actually, on long-term, really excited about it. One of the things that's interesting is we actually have more people on a daily basis using mobile web Facebook than we have using our iOS or Android apps combined. So mobile web is a big thing for us."

(For the record, that's the full quote according to Tobie Langel, an engineer at Facebook.)

Eich argues that Zuckerberg was actually making a slightly more high-level point about web standards.

"If you read between the lines, what it seemed he was saying is what they tried to do was hybridise native and HTML, and when you do that there's always a seam between the systems," Eich told ZDNet at a briefing in London on Wednesday.

"A friend of mine, Joe Hewitt, used to be at Facebook and did the first hybrid app and did a very good integration. But he left, and the skill required to keep that seamless — and possibly some of the support from Apple to do it — weren't there in the later versions," the Mozilla exec added.

Why the web will win out

Eich's comments about HTML5 are perhaps unsurprising, given that the company is now deeply involved in its own Firefox OS platform — a bid to create an entire mobile operating system using HTML5. 

The Mozilla exec did concede that HTML5 still faces standardisation issues. However, he does believe that more mature web technologies will eventually win out.

"If the web can be evolved to include the missing APIs and have better performance, [developers] won't need to go beyond the web" — Brendan Eich, Mozilla

"I don't think the web ever loses. It's just a matter of pragmatics and spin that you get into with these things," he said, suggesting that politics and rivalry sometimes overshadow technological factors in making development choices. 

"Companies like Facebook can afford to do a native [app], especially on iOS," he noted. "But for the long tail, developers will generally do the web and often be content there.

"If the web can be evolved to include the missing APIs and have better performance, [developers] won't need to go beyond the web." 

This is particularly relevant given Zuckerberg's comment that there are more people using the Facebook mobile site than either of its iOS or Android native apps combined. This fact illustrates the strength in numbers from web users, particularly in emerging markets where smartphones are less prevalent.

Strength in numbers

Eich hopes that by continuing to lead development of essential HTML5 standards, Mozilla will actually make developers' lives easier. This is because it can offer all the functionality and performance of a native app but in a platform-agnostic way, thereby opening up the potential audience.

"One of our hopes 10 years from now — which is very hard to forsee — is that you will have the web uplifted; you'll have these APIs we pioneered and more," he said.

"If you look at these APIs we've pioneered in the W3C, it wasn't just Mozilla — it was Nokia, Microsoft, Samsung and some of the Chrome OS people from Google. So there's enough strength in numbers there to get the web uplifted," Eich pointed out.

With the lure of Apple's ecosystem and reach, the iOS platform is often the first stop for developers. But Eich predicts that even this will change, as web technology matures.

"Apple has too healthy a balance sheet not to be around in 10 years. I'm sure they will have a native application stack in 10 years," he said. "I'm sure it will be awesome, but I have a feeling the web will be pretty darn good, and you won't have this tension between native versus web that we're endlessly debating these days."

Topics: Software Development, Apps, Open Source

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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  • It's been 20 years

    If the "web" and HTML were a private product from a company they would have been out of business a long long time ago. We code for the web because there is no alternative. But, make no mistake: The difference between it and native is light years... and the W3C is a monstrocity.
    • HTML5 will be ready for prime time

      In another 5-10 years when browsers finally decide what features to support, and frameworks come out that make using it easy and consistent.
    • If the web were a private product...

      pointless argument; give me an if followed by another if, and I can go to Rome and be back tomorrow making a detour by Mars.

      The fact is, and that is precisely what make the web so amazing, the web is no owed by anybody. In other words, the web is Open Source. And is quite amazing the way it is. You see, because the web is not owed by anybody, that's the very reason is so big. And when I say big, I mean, it represent a profound shift in human history, bigger than the invention of the press by Gutemberg. Bigger of course than any corporation. By magnitudes bigger, of course than a particular corporation than tried hard to make the web their property.

      Basically you sound the same as Bill Gates, when he was arguing the web was a fade: clueless.
  • Nice try but let's face it...

    ... HTML5 does not work unless you have infinite time at your disposal to work around its shortcomings. And then -as Facebook discovered- the performance and user experience are subpar. The HTML5-hype was the last product of Steve Job's distortion field. It already cost the world billions in extra developement time.
  • Note Who's Supporting It

    Firefox, Nokia, Microsoft - those who are trying to break into the market. Apple and Android already have large bases, so lock-in to proprietary is in their favor. Especially for Apple. As long as people buy iPhones using the argument "there are the most apps available in the Apple app store," Apple would have poor business sense in making HTML 5 run as fast or faster than native. If it's good enough to not annoy people, but bad enough to make native more appealing, it's in Apple's strategic interest to keep things that way. At the same time, I would not be surprised if they made sure they can quickly provide a fast HTML 5 experience should the market shift to HTML 5 development.
    • you started with a wrong assumtion:

      HTML5 is supported from companies trying to break the market.

      Microsoft trying to break the market? last time I checked they still own around 50% of browser market share. So your argument is void. They are trying to break (resurrect I should say) into the mobile space, but in the desktop space they are dominant.

      Now, what is the incentive for MS to give full HTML5 support? Many, but last time I checked they are still lagging behind the truly modern browsers: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, Camino, etc.

      Matter of fact it was Steve Jobs who gave the badge of credibility to HTML5, at a time when many people were arguing that Silverlight was the future. I don't thing I'm wrong stating that Apple was instrumental making HTML5 mainstream. Not only that, HTML5 support in mac OSX is second to none.

      Summarizing, you started with a wrong assumption, and based on that you elaborated an revisionist story plot.
  • Why would you ask anyone from Mozilla what MZ "meant"?

    Just ask him himself. HMTL5 doesnt have the required apis to do nice platform integration. Even those claiming to use "html5" are also using native platform extentions to get integrated so theyre not getting cross platform interop. If/when these apis are added it either wont be html5, it'll be 5.x or 6, or html5 wont be done forever. On top of that html/css/javascript are still far worse to develop sw with, unless those are the only "skills" you have.
    Johnny Vegas
    • Johnny time to refresh your skill set

      How that Silverlight thing is going? Are you still developing for WP7? seems developers are selling dozens and dozens there...

      Btw, that "platform integration" you mention is just another name to an old game, it used to be called vendor lock-in.
  • It doesn't have to "win out," nor do I think it will do so.

    "Why the web will win out"

    Does it have to, really? Will it, really?

    Nope, not really.

    As I said in Rachel's article - it's a tool, not a religion. Use what works best.

    "'If the web can be evolved to include the missing APIs and have better performance, [developers] won't need to go beyond the web.'"

    That will never happen, here's why:

    -HTML is a follower when it comes to adopting new APIs for new hardware. As hardware evolves, native always get it first because native takes no effort.

    HTML, on the other hand, takes effort. You have to convince browser vendors to start supporting it. You have to get standards bodies to put it into the standards. There's a lot of red tape needed to support ever changing hardware APIs.

    Native has none of that red tape. Thus, native always gets new hardware APIs first. Native will always be able to take advantage of the newest hardware before web technologies do.

    -HTML will always lag native in performance. Why? Because it needs to be parsed. You have to parse the HTML, parse the CSS, parse the JavaScript, and oh yeah also compile the JavaScript on the fly as well.

    Sorry, but there's no way around it: Parsing HTML/CSS and JIT compiling JavaScript as the page loads eats clock cycles like crazy. If you think that will ever be on par with natively compiled code, you're living in a dream world.

    Will things be faster in the future? Sure. But native code can take advantage of faster chips as much as HTML does, so it doesn't really matter; it will remain faster.

    Does HTML have its advantages? Sure. It works everywhere, bypasses the walled gardens of many phones, and provides access to resources that are too big for the average phone or PC.

    But, in the end - it's a tool, not a religion. And I wish we'd stop treating it like a religion.

    Neither one is going to "win." Developers and users will always try to use the right tool for the job. Sometimes that's HTML, and sometimes that's native.

    As a developer, I don't understand this obsession of putting our tools at odds with each other, as if one will inevitably "win" and the other will "lose." I generally don't throw away my tools; I prefer to keep them.

    They're not mutually exclusive, and they're not engaged in some sort of fairy tale battle where one will win and the other lose. Sorry to disappoint.
  • It was not a techical judgement

    Well, actually almost everybody got it wrong. They all took it as if Zuckerberg's statement was about the technical merits of HTML5 - but that obviously wasn't the case. He didn't say HTML5 was technically worser than native or that the latter was better in any way. The only thing he said was that they should not have focused so much on it. Nothing more, nothing less. It simply didn't fit their purposes well.

    And that has far more to do with the ability to capitalize on mobile and display advertising on it, than actual end-user experience, performance or even capabilities. HTML5 is not a good choice for Facebook, because with that and with a generic browser they don't control the environment their application is run on/in. HTML5 is simply too good, too open and too flexible for the purposes of Facebook, which can only make money if they can control the environment.

    So, sorry native-coding guys, you and your development tools are still doomed. And that's because even if Facebook will now make "native" apps for mobile platforms, they will still all work on and with the web. And at their core they will still use web technologies - practically and embedded browser - to display the content. They will just do that in a more controlled environment than in a regular browser. But it will still be web from top to bottom. As will be practically all apps, except for some games, in the next years and years to come after.
    • Embedded browser?

      You missed the point. The reason the Facebook native App has always sucked, been slow, and nobody likes using it is exactly because it was using an embedded browser. I think it's only in the newest version where Facebook got serious and created a more native, probably Obj-C written, app to everybody's joy. I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt the newest FB app is HTML.
    • thoughts . . .

      "And that has far more to do with the ability to capitalize on mobile and display advertising on it"

      Ads work fine in both mobile apps and native apps, last I checked.

      " they don't control the environment their application is run on/in."

      They don't control the environment in an app, either. Apple does. We're talking about a very locked down OS as well - which gives them very little control, as the OS itself has the vast majority of control, not the app. Everything they do is limited by Apple's approval processes and by user settings.

      Actually, an open environment would give them more control in this case.

      "So, sorry native-coding guys, you and your development tools are still doomed. "

      I still disagree. And my arguments still stand.
  • Mobile Users Want Native Apps

    Surveys have shown that users of mobile devices prefer native apps to web apps. They want apps that fit in seamlessly with their platform’s native capabilities, rather than one-size-fits-all-platforms websites.
    • Mobile Users Want Native Apps ?????

      Please, share a link to those surveys. As you phrased, you sound like those people saying -nobody like this, or that...
  • cross platform is critical

    apps may be the way to take full advantage of a platform... but the cross platform standards must be kept very very modern and relevant...
  • sorrynativecodingguys

    sorry native coding guys. the entire world is a facebook app and we have to do html5 coding. just because.
  • HTML5 vs Native

    Maybe Mark doesn't really know how much can be done with HTML5 and how quickly it can be done! Mark: visit out booth at CES (Flamesoft #75503) and I will show you what HTML5 is capable of. It's easy for Facebook to develop for every native platform that comes out, they have an unlimited budget and 1 App. In the real world, developers have a limited budgets and unlimited Apps. Our WEB IDE can build far more powerful apps than any native app, build on any device, for all devices.
    Jeff Laflamme