March 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Mobile Made Easier

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"This is one of the top features of HTML5 that is super useful," Uhrmacher says. "By avoiding reaching back to the web servers multiple times you can make a speedier experience."

Ideeli also makes use of new integration features in HTML5 to enable social sign-on. A consumer can log in to the site using her Facebook user name and password. She presses the Facebook sign-in button, is taken to a Facebook page for signing in, then is returned to ideeli where she finds Facebook Like and Share icons next to products. She can Like and Share without leaving the ideeli site; the HTML5 standard passes the information through to her Facebook account, which posts her preferences for her friends to see.

Through the HTML5 Facebook integration, ideeli also can access, with permission, customers' Facebook preferences. The e-retailer has yet to make use of this aspect of HTML5 but is considering the possibilities. "For example, the history of what you are declaring you Like could be interesting to use for tailoring what we have to your tastes," Uhrmacher says. "With mobile that is incredibly important because that smartphone screen means less ability to communicate than a large browser can. Our tolerance for noise goes way down on mobile."

On the air

Like ideeli, ShopNBC.com uses HTML5 to enable gestures including tap-tap-zoom (tap twice to zoom in on a page) and swiping. The TV retailer's big HTML5 innovation, though, is streaming its television programming live through its m-commerce site.

HTML5 enables a retailer's server and a mobile web browser to pass technical information back and forth about the video capabilities of the browser, the smartphone and the connection speed. The server then transmits the appropriate type of video—for example, lower-quality resolution for a low-bandwidth connection—to the mobile web browser, which renders the video live. The merchant also uses HTML5 to play product videos.

While its mobile vendor Usablenet took care of HTML5 on the site, ShopNBC.com and its video technology vendor Irdeto worked to re-encode its video behind the scenes. Encoding is a process of putting characters in a sequence to transmit content.

"It was a large, three-month project," says Kraus of ShopNBC.com. He declined to reveal the cost. "We had to work with Irdeto on installing new spinnakers to serve up the video to Usablenet using HTML5." A spinnaker is an encoding mechanism that reads the type of device requesting video and sends it video of appropriate quality.

On a web site, a retailer like ShopNBC can use Flash to display videos. But Apple Inc. devices like the iPhone and iPad will not run Flash. That's why ShopNBC went with HTML5.

"Flash to some degree is becoming obsolete because Apple devices won't run it and because of the rise of HTML5," Kraus says. "We felt like HTML5 has the most shelf life. And because these solutions are very expensive to put in place, especially for video, you don't want to make this investment every two years."

The merchant launched its m-commerce site in the fourth quarter of 2009 and launched the HTML5 version in the third quarter of 2011. Its investment in HTML5 is reaping rewards.

"We have seen steady mobile traffic increases and sales increases," Kraus says, though he declines to give exact figures. "Conversion has remained about the same. Given the increases in traffic, I am pleased that conversion has been steady. We are planning to launch further HTML5 enhancements early in the second quarter of this year. Those will yield increases in conversion, as well as an improved user interface."

HTML5 schooling

Creating m-commerce sites using HTML5 is not an ordeal, retailers using the language and HTML5 experts say. The learning curve is not steep.

"HTML5 is similar to all previous versions of HTML," says Jason Taylor, head of platform strategy and innovation at Usablenet. "There are numerous learning tools available at the W3C.org web site. The difference with HTML5 over HTML4 is HTML5 allows a designer to bring a lot of creativity, it allows a designer to think about form, not just functionality. It's not too difficult to learn, no more difficult than HTML4. It's actually a smaller set of additional functionality than was introduced with HTML4."

Some experts say a retailer looking to program in HTML5 should study that additional functionality a couple of pieces at a time.

"Developers can master two or three things and apply them to their sites, then go in and master a few more things," says Igor Faletski, CEO of Mobify. "In 2012 and 2013 a lot of web developers will complete learning HTML5. Then two years from now we'll take it for granted. Every site will be using some sort of HTML5 components in it. Because the browsers are getting better we'll see the experience become even better than that on apps."

Of course, retailers aren't always required to learn HTML5. They can turn to a vendor for help.

"The beauty of working with Usablenet on it is they supplied a lot of the technical expertise, that was a big plus," says Kraus of ShopNBC.com. "We didn't have to build that skill set in-house."

A few challenges

But even if a retailer has a vendor to do the technical work of HTML5, there are challenges. The primary challenge is that HTML5 is not yet a finished product. The W3C has yet to finalize HTML5, and, as such, things have been changing.

"An iPhone supports HTML5 slightly different than an Android, and so on. It's not as simple as saying I built a site for HTML5 and all the browsers understand it; you do need to understand the differences and serve up slightly different codes for the devices," says Taylor of Usablenet. "Manufacturers like Apple and BlackBerry created HTML5 browsers based on what the standards were at that time."

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