Facebook, WordPress and HTML5


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Last month, Facebook updated its iPhone/iPad mobile apps, opting to create native apps instead of the new HTML5 standard. Users (this one included) complained about the painfully slow loading app, so Facebook engineers solved the problem using a different programming language. Some saw this retreat as “a blow to HTML5” as a standard. This week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reinforced the meme when he declared that “betting on HTML5” was the company’s biggest strategic mistake.

If you ask me whether the HTML5 standard took a blow in this affair, I’d have a fairly unqualified ‘no.’ My reasons are both technical and philosophical.

From a technical, practical standpoint: Well, first, it’s really unfair to call HTML5 a programming language. Let’s be real–we’re mostly talking about tagged text here! I don’t know how much Facebook relies on the rich media pieces of HTML5 (video, audio, and animations). I will suggest that the terrible performance of the Facebook mobile app is more about browser support in the early days of the standard, and browser support, even on mobile devices, will always get better. (In the short-term, some have also noted that Apple doesn’t allow the “Nitro” JavaScript library that might have speeded things up.)

This brings me to the more philosophical reasons that underlie everything Facebook does, including dissing HTML5: Why does Facebook even matter to supporters of the open Web? Facebook is creating a walled garden that is designed to control its users’ experience, and force them to stay within its borders, where all the fun happens. Oh, and provide its advertisers with the appropriate number of eyeballs.

What you need to remember is that people have always chosen the open Web over walled gardens. The last company that tried to defeat the Internet was America Online (AOL). Like Facebook today, AOL in the 1990s was a place where people got their feet wet with electronic communication and entertainment. They built their membership base so well that AOL actually bought Time Warner (perhaps you thought it was the other way around)! But the more people heard about the Internet and the World Wide Web, the more they clamored to get access to it. Today AOL is little more than a purveyor of free email addresses.

I’m no business analyst or pundit, but let me suggest that there’s a real reason walled gardens fail in the end: The Internet generally, and the World Wide Web specifically, was built for three fundamental purposes: to allow human beings to get informed, communicate and collaborate with each other. HTML5 and other web standards continue to further these goals. To the extent that Facebook, or any other company, puts those goals first, they will prosper in the long run.

One reason I’ve been a WordPress supporter all these years is because this community has always been a backer of the open Web. It will prosper too.

Climbing off my high horse now to deal with more mundane issues. This rant was partially sparked by the research I’m doing to prepare for Tuesday’s Milwaukee WordPress Meetup on WordPress 3.4 and Web Standards. We’ll be at Bucketworks September 18 at 7PM. Paul Sanchez will also be talking about WordPress accessibility. See us if you’re in the neighborhood.