March 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Mobile Made Easier

HTML5 lets retailers create app-like mobile sites that could reduce the need for apps.

Lead Photo

The merchant uses HTML5 to enable shoppers to watch its live television programming on its m-commerce site.

Ideeli Inc. found the decision to be a simple one: If a customer has a smartphone in her hand, she's going to want a mobile commerce site to function like it's on a smartphone. That means gestures like swiping and pinch-and-zoom, speedy performance and easy access to social media. Basically, that means an app.

But a site is not an app—or at least that used to be the case. Now pioneering developers and m-commerce technology vendors have begun using HTML5, the latest iteration of the foundational programming language of the web. Using HTML5 technology from vendor Mobify, ideeli, a fashion and home members-only e-retailer, launched an m-commerce site in November 2011 that includes the gesture, speed and social features and functions it believed would give it an edge. And it's paid off.

"We've seen increases in conversion and sales, and a massive traffic growth rate," says Mark Uhrmacher, chief technology officer and co-founder of ideeli. The increases are over the activity of consumers accessing ideeli's non-optimized site on their smartphones. Uhrmacher in part credits the HTML5-enabled features that make the mobile site function much like an app, without requiring the consumer to download an app.

"To download an app, people have to want a long-term relationship with you," he says. And ideeli does offer a smartphone app for that type of customer. "But by opening up the mobile web site offering to function like an app, I get a lot of people who are early in the customer life cycle or who have a long-term relationship but have not yet downloaded the app or who just don't install apps."

Put simply, HTML5 can make sites more like their slick app cousins and in turn affect the app market. "HTML5 reduces the need for an app," Uhrmacher says.

Manna from heaven?

Many mobile web developers view HTML5 as a godsend because it will free them from having to create distinct apps for Apple, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. Instead, they will be able to write web code once in HTML5 for an m-commerce site and be done with it. And, if they see a need for an app, they will be able to wrap that m-commerce site in simple Apple coding, for example, and easily create an app.

That day has not quite arrived because the HTML5 standard is not finalized. Not all browsers support it or handle HTML5 code in the same way, which means a retailer building a site with HTML5 has some extra work to do to make the site accessible by some mobile shoppers.

Shoppers with newer phones should have no problems: All of the latest versions of the major mobile web browsers are now compatible with the fifth version of HyperText Markup Language, which is managed and promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium, a standards body better known as the W3C.

HTML5 can be used to create web sites for the desktop, the tablet and the smartphone, and retailers that have worked with it say it's easy to learn. But the big news has been its ability to access important features on a smartphone and mirror others to bring the functionality of apps—which to date provide superior mobile experiences compared with sites—to mobile sites. There are big implications.

"Just like more powerful computers and higher bandwidth kicked open the door to rich web sites on the desktop, HTML5 will do the same for sites on smartphones and tablets," says Tom Kraus, vice president of content and commerce at ShopNBC.com, which launched an HTML5 version of its m-commerce site in the third quarter of 2011. "It's the next step in the evolution of mobile commerce."

That evolution can be seen today in the offerings of mobile commerce technology vendors. Companies like Usablenet Inc., which works with ShopNBC.com, and Mobify, which works with ideeli, are incorporating HTML5 into their m-commerce platforms to enable richer features and functions on their clients' sites.

The latest and greatest

Ideeli created with Mobify an m-commerce site built, they say, for today's latest smartphones and mobile web browsers.

"Our customers expect a good experience from ideeli: visually compelling and easy to use," Uhrmacher says. "The best way to achieve those effects is using a lot of advanced browser features on the desktop site. So it was a natural for us to look at the more advanced end of the technology spectrum for our mobile site."

HTML5 includes a gestures feature that connects a site via a browser to a smartphone's touchscreen, enabling consumers to maneuver a site as they would an app. Now customers on ideeli's m-commerce site can swipe through galleries of images, for example, rather than have to touch a button to access the next set of pictures and continue to touch their way through predefined groups of images. And customers can pinch and zoom on select components of the m-commerce site. Zooming is important in the mobile realm because the small size of the screen makes it hard to display complete pictures.

"This is how people want to use the phone," Uhrmacher says. "If you are going to have iPhone and Android users on your site, you have to make this work."

HTML5 also includes a function called local storage. This allows site developers to cache data within a repository on an HTML5-compatible browser—standard and mobile. Apps are filled with cached data; this enables them to make only a minimum of calls to web servers to obtain necessary information since some of the information, such as the image and description of a product, is stored in the app on the smartphone. The same now applies to mobile sites; an HTML5 site can store commonly used site data within an HTML5 browser and thus reduce the number of server calls and the total number of kilobytes a server must send. The end result is faster page load times.

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