HTML has evolved considerably since it was first mapped out by Tim Berners-Lee more than 20 years ago. Now we're up to HTML 5.0, which could have a significant effect on the business intelligence and CRM landscape.
"HTML5 is a big push forward, especially considering how it handles different media as well as cross-device portability," said Tiemo Winterkamp, senior vice president of global marketing at business intelligence (BI) vendor arcplan. "Both are key areas to help us with mobile scenarios."
In the past, browsers were dependent on other technologies such as Flash, Silverlight or Java to render rich internet applications (RIA). This created problems such as Flash not being supported on iPhones or iPads. So one big benefit of HTML5 is that browsers will be able to integrate additional content like multimedia, mail and RIA with enhanced rendering capabilities. And plans have been made to allow future HTML5 browsers to securely access sensor and touch information, which makes HTML5 a viable alternative to native application development for such functions.
"This approach is very attractive for BI vendors who aim to provide business critical information anywhere, anytime and on any device," said Winterkamp. "The result is an attractive, multi-functional user interface with as little design and deployment effort as possible. And more importantly, you only need to develop these apps once for all devices."
He notes that HTML5 is very much a standard on the rise. It is progressing fast, with supporters such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, but the different browser vendors are currently cherry-picking the HTML5 features that best fit their current roadmap. Thus the degree of HTML5 support varies within some browsers, and an official release date when we'll see browsers with a broad implementation is hard to predict. But the good news for business applications is that many of the features available today thanks to HTML5 are sufficient to implement modern business intelligence and CRM applications.
For standard PCs or notebooks, current HTML is fine in terms of delivery of most relevant business intelligence and CRM functions. However, factors such as screen resolution and device size make mobile devices more of a challenge. HTML5 will simplify things and incorporate zooming technologies and gestures (pinching, double tap, turning, and so on) natively provided by the different devices.
The advent of HTML5 will also be good for app development. It will act as an impetus for innovation among CRM and BI application developers.
"Improved browsing technologies will force apps to evolve," said Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester Research. "In addition to talking to the local device, next-level apps should also talk to other apps through open APIs and interact with other devices."
Empowering Mobile Salespeople
Looking ahead, HTML5 will make it easier to bundle various types of media content into one "client mashup." For example, it becomes possible to list the nearby customers of a salesperson based on current GPS information and further visualize the different locations within Google Maps.
"You could even go as deep as mashing up the current total turnover of the customer with embedded chart visualization," said Winterkamp. "You may even embed content such as voice comments, pictures or bar codes as attachments in the database which is currently used on the server side."
Yes, some current applications can do all of that. But those are typically custom-built native apps that run on a specific device or platform. With the new HTML5, the door is opened to the creation of such applications once for them to be deployed everywhere.
Take the case of App Store tools that were specifically created for iPhones. When the iPad hit the streets, those apps had to be adjusted to work on that platform. And in many cases, they could not be reused for Android or Blackberry devices. Each of the apps for these different platforms and devices has to be maintained over time. HTML5 simplifies takes away that complexity, reducing the maintenance cost for mobile BI.
CRM, BI Vendors Roll Out HTML5 Apps
What is going to happen on the vendor front? More than likely, the established CRM and business intelligence players will be slower to adopt HTML5, as they already have plenty on their plates to deal with maintaining and upgrading their existing products. So look for the smaller players to be the ground breakers in this arena.
Arcplan, for instance, completed a review of its mobile BI options in 2010 and decided to go the web-app route using HTML rather than harnessing native applications. The result is that arcplan Mobile can run on any browser providing sufficient HTML support. This includes WebKit-based mobile browsers on iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango" and Bada.
"We are not offering every HTML5 function right now, but with each update of arcplan Mobile, we'll integrate new functions as they become available," said Winterkamp. "One thing that is high on our wish list is to have local and secure data storage in the browsers. This will then allow users to create uniform offline analytical web apps. "
Another potential addition would be to have something on a smartphone or tablet PC called a mobile BI Wall. This could give users widget-like snippets of dashboards and reports on their computers that are automatically updated and fed by a BI data warehouse. Typically this requires animated charts, local data storage, personalization, and collaboration features.
"Several of the new HTML5 functions will help us to create this mobile BI Wall as a smart web app," said Winterkamp. "But we do not expect to see that happen before mid next year."
Overall, though, it may be a little while before this technology breaks into the business intelligence and CRM mainstream.
"HTML5 will greatly improve the audio and video capabilities of mobile browsers," said Husson. "However, it will be at least three years before the technology fully matures. It has to reach critical mass on consumers' mobile handsets and in developers' minds."