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

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.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

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."

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