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Developers Create Mobile Facebook App with HTML 5

I should probably send Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a thank-you note. Ever since he told reporters that the biggest mistake his company had made so far was "betting too much on HTML 5 rather than native" in its mobile software development strategy, I've heard from a lot of interesting and creative HTML 5 users with, as you might guess, a slightly different view of the latest incarnation of the venerable markup language. Last week I sat down with two developers who took Mr. Zuckerberg's comment as a challenge.

"We don't want to dis the Facebook team," Jacky Nguyen told me. "The Facebook app is hard, and there are a lot of things about it that make it difficult to build an awesome app that these guys grappled with. But they threw HTML 5 under the bus instead of facing the fact that this was a difficult programming problem that's just as hard to do on native."

Nguyen is lead architect for a Redwood City, Calif.-based company called Sencha, which makes standards-based Web development products, including some HTML 5-based frameworks. He and Jamie Avins, who leads the company's graphics team, were "irked" (their word) by the fear, uncertainty, and doubt Zuckerberg's comment seemed to spread about HTML 5. And they set out, in their spare time, to prove him wrong.

"We got a little mad," Avins admits. "There are a lot of us who believe in this technology, and we don't like it when people say it sucks. We actually saw [Zuckerberg's comment] as a real problem. I went to Jacky and I said, OK, what's it going to take to do this thing? We spent some time researching exactly what they were doing [at Facebook] and what the challenges would be, and Jacky went at it head on."

The two looked under the hood of the FB mobile application, where they say they discovered that most of the so-called native iOS app actually used Web technologies. But the news feed -- the hardest part from a technical standpoint -- was definitely native. That's the part Nguyen rebuilt in HTML 5. He used his company's mobile app framework, Sencha Touch, which is the cornerstone of the Sencha HTML 5 platform. Nguyen matched the look and feel of the FB app, though he didn't build in every feature. In addition to the news feed, he built a multi-touch photo viewer (including pinch, pan, zoom, etc.); the user profile page; the overlays for notifications, friend requests, and messages; and sliding menus.

On Monday, Sencha unveiled the fruits of Nguyen and Avins' labors: "Fastbook," an HTML 5 app for iOS and Android, built entirely in HTML 5, which mimics Facebook's native app, including real FB data access via Facebook's API. A video demo of the app is available on Video. Nguyen and Avins also blogged on the release.

I got to see a demo of the new app on a basket of Apple and Android phones -- including my own iPhone 4S. It performed as advertised.

One of the problems with the public perception of HTML 5 in general, says Paul Kopacki, Sencha's VP of marketing, is that many people think it's just a markup language that's little better than HTML 4.01. But HTML 5 introduced new elements and attributes, full CSS3 support, new audio and video support, 2-D and 3-D graphics, local storage, a local SQL database, Web applications and APIs that can be used with JavaScript.

"When people go wrong with HTML 5, nine times out of ten, they're thinking of it as Web-dev technology," he said. "But it's really a set of app-dev technologies designed to make the browser a legitimate app runtime."

Kopacki also reminded me that there was a bit more to Zuckerberg's now infamous comment than typically gets talked about. He went on to say that "…it's not that HTML 5 is bad. I'm actually, on long-term, really excited about it."

"HTML 5 doesn't have a marketing department," Kopacki added. "Just folks like us, who don't own it, but who love it and believe in it. And we think 2013 is going to be a big year for HTML 5."

On Monday, the standards-setting Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) announced that HTML 5 and the Canvas 2D specification are now feature complete.

"The broader the reach of Web technology, the more our stakeholders demand a stable standard," W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe said in a statement. "As of today, businesses know what they can rely on for HTML 5 in the coming years, and what their customers will demand. Likewise, developers will know what skills to cultivate to reach smart phones, cars, televisions, ebooks, digital signs and devices not yet known."

About 63 percent of Web and application developers are actively using HTML 5, the W3C said in the announcement.

Sencha also announced the "HTML 5 is Ready App Contest," which invites Sencha developers to build their own apps that "prove the power of HTML 5." The company is offering $20,000 in cash and "cutting edge devices" as prizes. The contest is open now. Details are available here.

Posted by John K. Waters on December 20, 2012