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December 30th, 2015

JavaScript, HTML5 And The Web Made Big Comebacks In 2015

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The Web was actually the dominant theme of the apps economy in 2015.

The Web made a comeback in 2015 … reinforcing the idea that the Web was never in any actual danger.

The hottest topics of the year in software development and the apps economy had more to do with browsers and Web apps than smartphones and native apps. Apple’s iOS 9 provided a backbone to tie websites to apps for search and Google greatly increased its ability to deep link content inside apps for search purposes. Adobe’s Flash—thought dead among the mobile crowd for years—pitched on one final (and violent) fit before developers administer the coup de grace to Flash in 2016. In its place, HTML5 is becoming the de facto standard for content delivery.

And JavaScript—the language of the Web—is eating the world. Over and over again.

The Web also became a more complicated place in 2015. The media and publishing world really has no idea which way it should turn towards the future as Facebook’s Instant Articles, Apple News and AMP (the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project spearheaded by Google and Twitter) dominate the discussion. The egalitarian nature of the developers’ Web was balanced by the increasingly siloed options for the consumer Web.

Ad blockers, targeted mostly at browsers and Web apps, became the controversial topic du jour. The Web even saw a major new browser based on modern standards, something that does not come along all that often, in the form of Microsoft Edge.

All and all, 2015 was a fascinating year for the apps economy, a subset of the technology industry that has cemented itself as the method of software distribution in the world.

Let’s take a look at the major trends in the apps of 2015 and how they may evolve leading into the new year.

HTML5 Finally Matures

It took nearly 17 years, but HTML5 was finalized and published by the W3C in October 2014. Of course, Web and mobile developers had been using aspects of HTML5 for years. But it appears the official standardization of the markup language led to more adoption and creative use of HTML5 in 2015.

See also: Rich Media Built With HTML5 Is Coming To The Facebook News Feed

HTML5 is rapidly becoming the standard for media playback on the Internet. Most connected televisions are using HTML5-based codecs and rendering engines including Samsung Tizen televisions and LG’s webOS sets.

HTML5 is now (or will soon be) powering most advertisements across the Internet, most media playback (including audio, video, slide shows etc.) in the Facebook News Feed and Web apps designed specifically for mobile. The concept of write once, run anywhere is coming to fruition with HTML5, which is a distinct departure from when Mark Zuckerberg ditched the markup language for Facebook’s native iOS and Android apps in 2012.

So Long, Adobe Flash

The rise of HTML5 coincided with the long-awaited death spiral of Adobe’s Flash (and related end-of-life for Microsoft’s Silverlight video plugin).

The Essential Guide Guide to Android 6.0 Marshmallow What you need to know about all the features of Android 6.0 Get It Now

Flash was exposed—over and over again—in 2015 as insecure and unreliable. The Hacking Team exploits revelation in July showed just how nefarious Flash had become for Internet security. Both Google and Mozilla banned the plugin from their browsers (for a while at least before putting handicaps on playback capabilities) and Amazon outright banned Flash ads from its platform. Yahoo’s ad network was exploited and the Interactive Advertising Bureau officially came out in support of HTML5 over Flash.

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Facebook officially dropped Flash for video in the News Feed in December and the likes of YouTube and Twitch have turned their backs on the plugin. The maturity and adoption of WebGL for animations made Flash unnecessary to many Web and game developers.

Eventually Adobe got the picture. Adobe rebranded its Flash Pro tools as Animate CC with a heavy focus on HTML5 (though still with support for Flash, especially for games). In 2016, the migration from Flash will accelerate as Web and app developers and designers learn and implement the new tools for the HTML5 era.

Web And Mobile Performance And Ad Blocking Take Center Stage

In 2015 all the major Internet players got together and decreed: the Web must be faster, especially on mobile.

The need for speed has brought a fair amount of controversy as well.

Facebook first brought the thunder when it announced Instant Articles, all in the name of speed. Facebook Instant Articles, available through its iOS and Android apps, helps publishers quickly load websites (typically news stories) clicked from within the News Feed. Of course, Instant Articles may also be a way for Facebook to control the media landscape through its own platform (Facebook can share ad revenue with publishers).

Google and Twitter got together to announce AMP—the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project—so that articles would load quickly on mobile devices. AMP achieves this by stripping nearly all of the JavaScript out of Web pages and providing a specific AMP HTML tag for browsers to recognize. The backlash against AMP (outside of being yet another closed garden ploy from major tech company) has been that it forks HTML from what Web developers have known and practiced for years.

“But then people said, it’s great but you are fundamentally changing HTML. You are fundamentally changing the things that we do. And so, not so great. Can you make that even smarter? Can you make that even better?” said Ash Kulkarni, Akamai’s senior vice president and general manager of its Web experience division in an interview with ARC.

A group of developers (many associated with Google) are working on a system that may make all of this performance handwringing obsolete. Called Progressive Web Apps, the structure would be to use Application Shell Architecture and Service Workers to speed up performance of Web apps and sites. If Progressive Web Apps can be successful, the notion of AMP or Instant Articles would not be needed in the first place.

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Apple News—another closed garden move in the media landscape—also promised fast loading and revenue sharing with publishers through iOS 9, just like Instant Articles.

Outside of the realm of news and media, Apple focused significantly on performance in iOS 9. Dubbed “app thinning,” iOS 9 uses several techniques such as app slicing and on-demand resources to give apps a smaller memory footprint and to load quicker on people’s iPhones and iPads.

Google provided more battery performance and reduced RAM usage through Android 6.0 Marshmallow with two new features called Doze and App Standby. Doze will basically shut off all the background features of the operating system and only let through high-priority alerts. App Standby identifies apps that haven’t been used in a while and puts them into deep sleep.

There’s Always A Job In JavaScript

Kevin Lacker, chief technology officer at Facebook-owned Parse, said at the Web Summit in Dublin this year, “If you want a job, Node.js is the thing to hop into right now.”

Node.js is but one element of Lacker’s enthusiasm. The name of his presentation was, “JavaScript is eating the world.

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The key theory behind JavaScript’s usurpation of the developer world is that it can now run across the full stack of developer priorities: Web apps, native apps and servers. Web apps and browsers have long leaned on JavaScript. React Native—a JavaScript framework for native apps championed by Facebook—gained support throughout 2015 and is helping to redefine universal app development. And Node.js is growing by leaps and bounds as the new favorite backend system for developers looking for a common programming language and speed.

Stack Overflow’s robust annual developer survey said 54.8% of its developers use JavaScript (not including the AngularJS framework or Node.js, both at 13.3%).

The validation for JavaScript came when WordPress—the content management system and hosting service that runs 25% of sites on the Web—decided to use Node.js on its backend and embrace JavaScript.

Microsoft embraced open source JavaScript when it decided to open its ChakraCore engine to developers, beginning in early 2016. The virtual machine will run software, game engines, NoSQL databases and more.

“ChakraCore is a big deal for Microsoft and the Chakra team. Chakra has been the only major JS VM that was not open source,” said Dan Shaw, chief technology officer and cofounder of NodeSource in an email to ARC. “ChakraCore is Windows only for now. It features industry-leading performance on the latest JavaScript features, which is exciting. Most exciting, however, is the async profiling capabilities that allow devs to step back and forth through time and view application state … even if the application session has been destroyed and all you have is a snapshot.”

Incremental Updates For Operating Systems

From a functional, feature and excitement standpoint, 2015 was a slow year for the major operating systems.

Unless, of course, you’re Microsoft.

Apple focused iOS 9 on the internal aspects of the operating system this year, featuring a new search engine and capabilities, a slimmed down version of the OS itself and performance boosts for apps. The other features of iOS 9—Apple Music, Apple News etc.—were more directed towards Apple’s eventual post-iTunes future than iOS itself. iOS 9 did not feature a big redesign or many earth shattering features (3D Touch and Live Photos are interesting additions though). iOS 8 featured 4,000 new APIs and it was a lot for people and developers to handle. Apple digested what it built in iOS 8 and made it perform better in iOS 9.

The Essential Guide to iOS 9 What you need to know about all the features and under-the-hood upgrades in iOS 9 Get It Now

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The same can basically be said about Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Android 5.0 Lollipop had around 5,000 new APIs. Google focused on battery life, device performance and improvements with Marshmallow instead of adding a ton of new features. Google’s projects around connectivity (Projects Fi, Loon, Fiber) are arguably more important to the future of the mobile ecosystem than any single new feature within Android 6.0.

And then there was Microsoft.

Unlike Apple and Google’s yearly updates, Microsoft only releases a major version of its Windows operating system every three years. This year brought Windows 10 (skipping Windows 9), a sophisticated update to Windows that fixed many of the user experience issues that plagued Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 while optimizing the operating system for the latest trends in technology and the apps economy (cloud optimization, app distribution, cross-device functionality).

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The interface of Windows was improved in Windows 10 (a mix of the old desktop-based design mixed with some of the better features of Windows 8). But the biggest improvements were made inside as Microsoft moved to give Windows a common kernel among its range of devices, from the Xbox to tablets, laptops, PCs, smartphones. Even Internet of Things devices and the new and exciting HoloLens augmented reality glasses. Universal Windows Apps can be written for any Windows devices and then tweak to the specific form factor and functionality of each.

Microsoft wants all the apps … just like Google has with Android and Apple with iOS. As part of the Universal Windows Platform guise, Microsoft attempted to build “bridges” (don’t call them “ports”) for iOS, Android, Web and Win32 apps to run on Windows 10. Some of those bridges are still in development while others have stalled (Android), but Microsoft’s strategy to make it as easy as possible to use any programming language to run on Windows is ambitious.

Microsoft also—finally—brought about the end of the Internet Explorer era. Microsoft Edge is the browser for the current era … something that IE could not claim to be for years. The old Trident rendering engine was gutted and replaced with EdgeHTML and Microsoft took massive leaps to modernity in the Web development world.

Digital Strategy: Full-Stack Deployment

Here’s a paradox: The mobile Web reaches way more people than native apps, but people spend way more time in native apps than on the Web.

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ComScore noted in its 2015 Mobile Apps Report that top 1,000 mobile apps average 3.3 million visitors a month. But the top 1,000 mobile Web destinations average 8.9 million visitors a month.

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But when it comes to usage, those same top 1,000 mobile Web destinations averaged 10.9 minutes per person per month while the same 1,000 apps averaged a whopping 201.8 minutes of use per month.

Desktop use was second to mobile apps in terms of use and grew 16% from 2013. So even that archaic idea of the desktop is still growing strong.

So here’s the thing: the whole “apps versus Web” argument is pretty bunk. And it always has been. To be a mature and sophisticated business in the apps economy in 2015 and beyond, you need to think of the full stack … from the desktop down to the smartwatch. Catch people on the Web—through both desktop and mobile browsers—and engage them with apps.

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Really, it all comes down to usage behavior. During the day, people are using desktop-based apps, mostly browsers. During evenings and weekends people tend to lean back with smartphones, tablets and video streaming services (like Roku, Chromecast or the Apple TV). A proper digital strategy heading into 2016 will encompass all of the variables, times of day and devices.

“We also see a pretty interesting pattern here where Monday through Friday, the desktop browsers have a certain market share and every weekend the mobile browsers jump up and the desktop browsers go down. It is as clear as day no matter where we go,” said Akamai network engineer Kevin Lamont in an interview with ARC this year. “It really speaks a lot as to the way people consume content when they are sitting at a desk as opposed to when they are at home.”

Image: “The Real JavaScript Robot” by Flickr user Ben Alman, Creative Commons (no changes made).