HTML5's weakness is Qt's opportunity, says Digia

Tommi Laitinen, product chief at the company that now controls Qt, says the graphical UI development toolkit can provide cross-platform performance where HTML5 has failed to do so.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

HTML5's performance limitations as a technology for application front-ends present a golden opportunity for Qt, according to the company that now controls the graphical user interface toolkit.

Digia product chief Tommi Laitinen

Tommi Laitinen, product chief at Finnish software firm Digia, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that businesses still want cross-platform development capabilities for creating user interfaces, and claimed that Qt would be well-placed to deliver.

Laitinen was speaking shortly after the unveiling of Qt 5.0 and Digia's roadmap for the toolkit, which should see Android and iOS support added around the autumn of 2013.

Asked whether cross-platform UI development had gained a bad reputation after key players such as Facebook switched from HTML5 to native code for iOS and other mobile platforms, Laitinen said the situation provided "a huge opportunity for [Digia], as nobody has been able to solve those problems".

"HTML5 aims to do [cross-platform] but, in performance-hungry situations, it is not able to meet user expectations," Laitinen said. "But, at least for small and mid-sized companies, it will be a huge burden to support all the key platforms with native technology, which is required to achieve a certain level of performance. We are able to solve that problem. In that sense we can be competitive."

Laitinen added that Qt was able to give developers a way to develop cross-platform while producing an end product that gives an Android-like user experience on Google's platform, and an iPhone-like experience on Apple's platform.

Digia's plans

Qt has a strong heritage on the desktop, where it has been used to create the front-ends for popular applications such as Skype and Google Earth. It is also used in the KDE Linux project.

Nokia bought the company that was behind Qt, Trolltech, back in 2008. Qt was central to Nokia's plans to help developers write apps that would run on both Symbian and MeeGo. However, Nokia ended up dumping both those platforms in favour of Windows Phone, and sold both the commercial and open-source Qt operations to Digia in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

From Digia's perspective, Laitinen said, this was a good opportunity to expand the firm's business, which had previously been almost entirely services-related — with Nokia being a major client.

"Digia as a company comes from a technical perspective. We are very good engineers," Laitinen said. "We have good knowledge of creating products and producing good services. We realised Nokia's business would not be there as it was, and Nokia was a pretty big client for Digia. So, as Nokia changed its strategy, we saw it was a very good opportunity for us to enlarge our business."

Laitinen pointed out that Nokia had not been interested in making Qt as widely used as possible, as it needed it mainly for Nokia's own platforms. As a result, he suggested, Qt's spread became "a little bit distorted", with the desktop "not being supported as heavily as it should be", and Android and iOS support being entirely out of the picture.

"So we are increasing our investments in those areas," he said. "We believe the direction of the platform will go back to its origins and, in that sense, provide us with more growth."

"The key issue for us is to keep the ecosystem alive," Laitinen added. "We really would like to keep the Qt governance model open. We are willing to grow the whole pie, rather than to just [focus entirely on] the commercial business."

Growth opportunities

The introduction of iOS and Android support will not be the only growth opportunities for Digia, which is hoping to refresh and grow the platform in more traditional areas.

According to Laitinen, 75 percent of all Qt developers are "at least to some extent" developing for the desktop. With tablets starting to usurp the desktop for some functions, he said, Digia is trying to target businesses that are considering making the switch.

"Many of our licensees are considering whether they should support their desktop applications in the mobile environment," he said. "If we're able to create a path from the desktop towards tablets, that's very important for our success and for our customers."

Qt also has a background in embedded systems, which increasingly come with touch-based interfaces. Laitinen suggested that this market would only continue to expand.

"The embedded market is huge," he said. "Soon your refrigerator will have a touch interface and you will steer your TV with a touch-based remote control. The UI revolution is here and touch-based UIs are the future. And, in that arena, there is no de facto standard way to build UIs. With demand for small memory footprints and so on, Qt has a good opportunity to grow there."

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