In the world of mobile computing, HTML5 is a potential disruptive force to the current way of doing things. Perhaps more specifically, it can disrupt the way Apple invented the mobile app ecosystem.
Mobile apps existed long before Apple came along. As BlackBerry owners know, it has always been easy to grab a link to a JAD file, click on it, and have the app install itself on your BlackBerry phone. But when Apple introduced their App Store, they centralized the distribution of iOS apps and imposed their own set of rules on what would be permitted in the store.
For consumers, the existence of a mobile application store makes things easy. It's like knowing that whatever you need to buy, you'll find it at Costco, or Home Depot, or whatever mega-store you want to substitute into this metaphor. There's one store to buy things from, there's one easy method payment, and there's one simple way to get app updates.
For publishers, it's convenient too. Publish your app in the store and don't worry about collecting the money. Don't worry about managing all those emails from customers who tell you they lost their download link or broke their device. The store takes care of it. That is, unless your app doesn't fit into their neat little framework, or unless you don't want to part with 30% commission. Or, unless you don't like the idea of someone else owning your customer.
Big media companies don't like the idea of having Apple (or anyone) "own" their mobile app subscribers. They want to be able to directly connect with customers by email, and collect payment outside of the walled-garden that is the app store.
It's a whole new world of web programming. No longer is HTML useful only for presenting text, or rendering CSS stylesheets. HTML5 is dynamic, flexible and pretty darn powerful. The capabilities of HMTL5 let you do all kinds of things such as adding filters to an image, playing video, automatic drag and drop of files that get uploaded to a server, simple text chat, geolocation, scalable vector graphics, and much more.
RIM has embraced HTML5 by introducing the open sourced WebWorks development platform (essentially a fork of PhoneGap). They've even go so far as to build the BlackBerry 10 browser using HTML5, and they're pushing hard to show developers how easy it is to create BlackBerry 10 app using their tools.
RIM is by no means the only company supporting HTML5. Apple had a very public stance on the inevitable death of Flash, based on their belief that HTML5 would displace it. I think it's safe to say Apple was right about this. Every major player in mobile realizes the movement towards HMTL5.
But app developers who publish their work using a framework such as BlackBerry WebWorks are still publishing to a store. They are still dependent upon the rules of that store, and the commissions taken by the platform owner. Nothing really changes except for the programming lanuage.
That is, until people sidestep the stores completely and just publish their apps as a URL. Point your URL to the server that hosts your HTML5 app and you're in business. There is no app store. There are no versions to maintain for customers, since it's all hosted online. There are no issues with someone else owning your subscribers, if you have a subscription model. Everything is run through the browser.
HTML5 allows offline web caching, so that apps can work when they aren't connected to the Internet. Pretty awesome, right?
So what is HTML5 really useful for? In the long term, I don't know. It's probably going to extend far beyond whatever we're seeing today. Right now it's among the easiest ways to publish content-rich apps. Think news, weather, ebooks, video, audio, recipes, tour guides, or any other app that mostly consists of text, simple graphics, audio and video.
At the other end of the spectrum we have complex 3D games. But those games are usually coded on gaming SDKs such as Unity. I think the gaming industry has already proven that platform-specific tools are not the best approach for the big name developers (who can afford to use these tools). Big names would rather invest in a cross-platform tool that lets them bring their games to iOS, Android, BlackBerry 10 and Windows 8.
It seems to me, then, that this same truth will extend itself to content apps. RIM is putting a lot of effort into WebWorks. The code is all open source on GitHub, so anyone is free to run with it. Longer term, I think we'll be looking at a scenario where one best-in-class HTML5 app development kit exists, and platform vendors, like BlackBerry, contribute specific code blocks to enable the use of APIs on their devices.
News, weather, sports, and many other content-rich apps don't need to exist in a store. They need to exist on the web, and be saved as shortcut icons to the mobile device. We then need a public cloud with user authentication so that we can share our apps across our multiple devices. This is going to take many years to unfold, but that's where I see things going.
In the mean time, is BlackBerry going to be helped or hurt by this focus on HTML5? I actually think it will help them in the long and short run.
In the short run, they're giving developers two major choices. Develop using WebWorks, or develop using the native kit with Cascades. I suppose I should add that the Android player is a third choice. Considering how far these tools have been pushed along over the last couple of years, RIM is in a good position in terms of what it offers developers. The offline world of apps hasn't really taken hold yet, but iOS and Android developers now have an easier way to get their code running inside BlackBerry World.
Longer term, I think the bet on HTML5 will prevent RIM from falling behind in mobile computing. They will absolutely need to support the standard to the highest level. When mobile apps become mobile HTML5 websites, not distributed through a store, RIM needs to ensure these apps run on BlackBerry 10. If we all complain about the lack of Skype, Netflix and Instagram now, imagine what we'd be saying when it's not even the developer's choice anymore - imagine what we'd say when it's a limitation of the platform (and their poor support for HTML5).
I think RIM is placing the smart bet here. They're doing what works not only for the short term, but for the long term.