Susan Kuchinskas unravels the hype around the emerging HTML5 standard
In September 2012, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg slammed HTML5, saying it wasn't good enough. A year earlier, responding to an increase in mobile traffic, Facebook had moved both its desktop and Web versions to HTML5. But the company found the apps to be slow and unreliable. Early in 2012, it switched back to a pair of native mobile apps, one for iOS and one for Android.
Mobile phone developers, with their emphasis on gaming and entertainment, tend to stick up their noses at HTML5, echoing Zuckerberg's diss. In the automotive sector, however, it's getting plenty of buzz. Telematics providers hope that HTML5 will let them attract the creativity of the mobile device ecosystem, because developers could write one app in the standard that could run on phones, tablets and infotainment systems. (For more on HTML5, see Telematics and the next-generation web.)
"The problem that automakers are trying to solve is how they can keep their cars fresh with the latest content and leverage the application developer community to build for their platform,” says Kerry Johnson, product manager for QNX Software Systems. “Proprietary platforms are not the way. You end up with a small, niche-y set of developers that can develop for your platform."
The one technology that is ubiquitous in the automotive market, Johnson adds, is HTML5. In fact, QNX has found that developers can be two to three times as productive in HTML5 than in other native frameworks. (For more from QNX, see QNX: "Deliver features that truly engage consumers".)
Cross-development of apps
In addition to cross-development of apps for cars and mobile devices, HTML5 could allow for recyclable coding, resulting in lower production costs. Because its cascading style sheets feature allows the same code to be rendered differently on different devices, it would allow the same app to be branded differently for different cars or models.
Unfortunately, it's not so simple.
HTML5 offers a whole suite of new features, including three-dimensional graphics, plus accelerated audio and video playing that used to require proprietary plug-ins like Adobe Flash. But the automotive industry needs something more robust, says Bob Harrison, solution architect for Triple Play Integration, owned by Symphony Teleca, a company that provides software development for automotive OEMs and tier 1 and 2 suppliers across multiple platforms.
What's missing? "A development environment, an execution environment and extensibility," says Harrison.
Part of the problem, Harrison says, is that HTML5 was originally conceived as the next version of the desktop browser. "But in automotive, you might want to interrogate automotive diagnostics or other control environments, like the infotainment system. We need the ability to author our applications to access these systems, bring their status in and display it nicely within a browser page [in the car]," he says.
HTML5 is best thought of not as a browser or rendering language, Harrison thinks, but rather as a collection of features that will continue to expand.
Adds Johnson, "The key to having HTML adopted in automotive is that it's not about putting a browser in a car. It's about how to take advantage of the richer capability offered by HTML5 to bring innovation and an open ecosystem of application developers onto the platform." (For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps.)
QNX is betting big with its new CAR 2 application platform, a pre-integrated software stack for car infotainment powered by HTML5. But its aim, Johnson says, is not to drive universal use of the standard but rather to act as the interface between OEM environments of all kinds and applications including those built in HTML5.
"We're providing a way to host HTML5 apps that target the QNX platform, get third-party developers contributing, and use it to play matchmakers between developers and OEMs." The sales pitch to OEMs is, "We're enabling the ability to add HTML5 applications to your platform," Johnson says.
Livio is doing a similar thing with its Livio Connect API. Livio Connect is a middleware framework protocol that lets automotive infotainment systems remotely connect to and control smartphone applications. It supports HTML5 as well as other technologies. (For more from Livio Radio, see Livio Radio: How apps get into cars.)
There's considerable debate among developers, especially developers working on apps for phones, about whether HTML5 is as fast and reliable as native applications; that is, ones written expressly for a particular operating system, such as iOS or Android. As Facebook found out, HTML5 isn't always the best choice.
Native application development
Says QNX's Johnson, "HTML5 shows promise of being equal to native application development, but there are certain classes of applications where you may be better off developing in a different technology. For a class of problems we've been talking about, that are naturally Web-connected, they are straightforward and easy to develop."
ABI Research recently issued a report saying that 32 per cent of the top iOS apps could be developed by taking advantage of Web code. The study pointed out that, while the industry tends to view HTML5 as "a single, monolithic technology," it's really a collection of several features that are interrelated but not necessarily interdependent. ABI warned against both advocating for and dismissing its potential based on its performance in niche areas.
Johnson agrees. "There are certain things that HTML5 is maybe not best the tool for." For example, most car navigation engines are written as native processes that interface not only with GPS but also with the car's internal systems, including sensors indicating speed and direction of travel. "Where there is deep integration with the actual hardware, you would want to have a native application," he says.
Standards falling short
If the pace of innovation in the auto telematics industry has improved from glacial to merely snail's pace, that of international standards bodies remains even slower. Moreover, because so many different sectors are participating, there's a lot on the automotive wish list that has not been addressed.
The World Wide Web Consortium's Web and Automotive Workshop, held in November, discussed reinventing driver interfaces and controls to improve concentration; ways to handle mobile devices and applications brought into the car; creating and managing app stores; and opportunities for new applications and devices in the car to be enabled by the web. That's a long laundry list for a two-day workshop.
Triple Play Integration is super-busy right now, Harrison says, building custom extensions to the HTML5 standard. He says, "While GENIVI and the W3C and WebKit and all these other open standards organizations work on their solution set, I have customers today that say that their customers—the OEMs—are requesting an HTML5 strategy for model year 2017. I'm encouraged by what these organizations are doing, but my customers can't wait."
While these companies will act as connectors and translators in the short term, Massimo Baldini, president of Livio Radio, is bullish. He says, "We believe that apps as we know them, native applications, in the next three to five years will be mostly gone. HTML5 web applications will take over."
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.
For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps.
For the latest on HTML5 and telematics, check out Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6.
For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics India and South Asia 2013 on April 17-18 in Bangalore, Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 7-8 in London, Data Business for Connected Vehicles Japan 2013 on May 15-16 in Tokyo, Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich, V2V & V2I for Auto Safety USA 2013 on July 9-10 in Novi, MI, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Russia 2013 on September 9-10 in Moscow and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.