Why Hstry is going HTML5 and not native

Go native? or go HTML5? One of the most important decisions to make for a lot of tech startups. A lot has been written and a lot of different opinions are available about this choice. In the end, however, there’s no single answer that works for everyone. Each startup has to look at its own case, and make a decision based on what requirements it finds most important. At Hstry we chose to go for a HTML5 web application, the main motivation being the openness and accessibility of the web.

Education for everyone

Education is a human right and every child on the planet should have access to good education. After all, the right to education is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, the increasing popularity of MOOCs, or the growing number of tablets in schools, indicate that we’re entering an age where technology will play an important role in education.

In order to preserve the universal right to education, access to educational resources on these new technological devices should be available to everyone. At Hstry, we are building a product that we believe is of great value to teachers and students and we want as many people as possible to have access to our platform. This is the reason why we believe that we should be building a web application and not a native application.

An HTML5 web application is also accessible on laptops.

Nobody owns the web

Nobody “owns” the Internet. This is a fundamental aspect of its design and also its greatest strength, since that is what made it ubiquitous in today’s society. The protocols that power the Internet are open standards that are not controlled by a single company (although corporations have tried getting some amount of control). Similarly, HTML5, CSS and Javascript, the technologies that power the web, are specified and standardized respectively W3C and ECMA International. These are non-profit standards organizations that do not have specific ties to the industry, and they serve the interests of all users of the Internet, not the interests of a particular company.

To be accessible to all

We’re an EdTech startup and our users are K-12 students and teachers. Developing the Hstry application as a native app on either of the two biggest platforms today, iOS and Android, would have two important consequences.

First of all, we would exclude a big portion of the users that could possibly have access to Hstry. Tablets are very popular in digital classrooms and within that sphere iPads and Android tablets have approximately equal market shares. We could develop an application for both platforms and be available for classrooms using either device. However, there are new devices entering the market and that cannot serve either an iOS or an Android app. For instance, the Google Chromebook, that accounted for almost 20 percent of the mobile computing market for K-12 schools in 2013, is becoming increasingly popular. In the same way, the Microsoft Surface might have a future in K-12 education. Furthermore, there are schools out there that are using less popular devices like Blackberry tablets. An iOS app or an Android app would not be accessible from either of these.

What unites all these devices though is that they all come with a browser that understands the web standards defined by W3C and ECMA International and therefore can all serve HTML5 web applications. Therefore, by making the Hstry platform available as a web platform, we make it accessible to classrooms equipped with any of these devices, be it an iPad, an Android tablet, a Chromebook or even a laptop or a smartphone.

Tablets can be used to view HTML5 web applications.

At the mercy of the app stores

Secondly, developing natively for either one platform, iOS or Android, ties you to a particular company: Apple for iOS and Google for Android. You tie yourself to their technology and to their main distribution channel for their respective platform. Both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store reserve the right to ban applications from their stores and they have done so in the past when particular applications didn’t align with their policies (this happened to the popular open-source VLC media player).

Besides, Apple is notorious for taking a 30% cuts on the revenues made through an app. This pushed the Financial Times to pull away its iOS app in favor of a fully web-based HTML5 application. When you offer additional paying services through a web application, you’re in full control of all sources of revenue.

Conclusion

In terms of user experience, native apps are still better than HTML5-based web apps. They run faster and provide an overall smoother user experience. Fortunately, this is becoming less and less of a problem as the hardware that powers devices is getting increasingly faster and the implementation of the various web browsers is also constantly improving.

However, on a higher level, offering Hstry as a web application serves our main mission: to captivate every student in the study of history, no matter what device they’re on. And to achieve this, we find that the openness of the web aligns very well with the right for education for everyone. And this is where for us, web applications win over native apps.

This article was originally published on the Hstry blog.

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