Ex-Apple Javascript Guru: HTML5 and Native Apps Can Live Together

When it comes to the mobile web, the technology industry seems to be split between two camps — native apps and HTML5 web-based apps. But the bitterly debated subject might be moot if a small Los Altos, Calif.–based startup called Strobe Inc. has anything to do with it.

Strobe is developing an HTML5-focused platform and a set of cloud services that allow companies to leverage the open-source SproutCore framework and develop applications for mobile devices. And it happens to be one of the more exciting new startups I have talked to in recent days. Using a combination of open standards, open-source software and some old-fashioned chutzpah, the company is poised to ride a massive wave of convergence between the web and mobile devices.

Jolley Good

Strobe was founded two months ago by Charles Jolley, a well-known developer who recently left his job as JavaScript Frameworks Manager at Apple’s MobileMe. Jolley started working on the SproutCore framework in 2005 as part of his startup Sproutit, which made a web-based email application called Mailroom. The framework was open source. In 2006, he started working for Apple (s AAPL), where he was able to put the framework to use in Apple’s MobileMe, iWork and the concierge service on the website for Apple’s retail store, while continuing to contribute back to the open-source SproutCore project.

SproutCore is an HTML5 application framework for building responsive, desktop-caliber apps in any modern web browser, without plugins. SproutCore works by doing the only thing that can truly eliminate the latency problem: it moves your business logic to the client. SproutCore applications are full-fledged programs, written in JavaScript. That JavaScript executes in your user’s browser, freeing up your servers (and server engineers) to focus on what’s most important in a cloud application: delivering users’ data as quickly and reliably as possible. But SproutCore isn’t your mama’s JavaScript library. It isn’t meant to augment existing web pages. It isn’t meant to add animation to documents. SproutCore is a tool for building applications. It has more in common with Cocoa or .NET than jQuery or MooTools. Because of that, SproutCore will change the way you think about building web apps. [From the SproutCore website.]


The iPad Made Me Do It

When I asked him about his decision to jump into the entrepreneurial waters again, he pointed to the iPad as a catalyst. “It is the perfect web device,” he said. In a blog post announcing his decision to leave Apple, Jolley wrote:

Every so often a few technology trends converge that yield results much greater than their individual parts. I think we have reached one of those moments with mobile devices (like the iPad) and HTML5. In many ways, the iPad is the perfect web device. It’s a lean-back experience optimized around consuming content. With HTML5 (which mobile Safari does better than just about anything else), the kind of experience you can create on these devices is just really spectacular. You only need to use the NPR demo we wrote earlier this year for a few minutes to realize this is obviously the future of software.? For this reason, I decided about a month ago to leave Apple and form a new company centered around helping companies bring great native-style app experiences to mobile device[s].?

As Jolley notes, SproutCore has emerged at a good time — mobile browsers are becoming very powerful and have developed the ability to leverage the hardware oomph provided by processors powering mobile devices. Strobe offers GUI-based cloud applications and services to create HTML5 apps. Jolley says the company will focus on many different verticals in the long run, but for now it is starting off by developing tools and services to help the publishing industry build a new, seamless content experience that spans the web and mobile landscapes.

While its core framework is open sourced, Strobe charges its customers, typically large media companies, for value-added offerings.

Strobe provides SproutCore and a shared-source digital reader application for free, which publishers can skin and customize for touch devices such as iPhone, iPad and Android phones. The reader blends HTML5 and native code, which means the same look and feel is maintained across the web and the native apps. “Our bet is that once publishers are using the digital reader platform, they will also turn on some of our premium services,” Jolley notes. He says the company is currently working on a series of premium cloud services that can optimize the reading experience and help publishers drive revenue.

“For example, we are working on a “front page optimizer” that can automatically reorganize the stories on the front page of a newspaper or content site based on which ones are most popular,” he says.”Our bet is that once publishers are using the digital reader platform, they will also turn on some of our premium services.”

The idea has been a hit with publishers, enough that Jolley has put the idea of raising capital for his self-funded company on hold for now. He is also keeping the names of his customers under wraps. “I can’t tell you names, but we have signed a few and they are all household brands,” he says. “You will see something from them by at least early next year.”

The Blended Brew

Apps have become a preferred way of accessing information on mobile devices. But developers want to provide a unified experience, and that is why Jolley believes that we will soon have apps that use HTML5 inside a native app wrapper. “People are looking for an either/or solution, but it is not going to end up like that,” he said.

Think of Strobe’s offerings as a way to create an experience that is a blend of HTML5 and native mobile apps. How this works is that an application is developed in HTML5 instead of proprietary formats. It is wrapped in a native app wrapper for, say, the iPhone, but when accessed through a web browser on a PC or any other device, like tablet, it offers the same user experience. This is a good way to solve a problem that is only going to get compounded many fold as multiple endpoints for content start to emerge.

The co-existence of web and native apps also means content publishers need to think differently about content and how it is offered to consumers. The multiplicity of endpoints (iPhone, iPad, TV and PC) is going to force content producers to think differently about how they build the user experiences for different sets of screens. Jolley argues that the best way to do so is to stop taking a document-centric view that is part of the PC-era. In the touch-based mobile device era, folks need to think of ways to have a single technology stack married to the ability to create unique experiences for different devices.

And if you do that, there is no doubt that HTML5 and native apps can live in harmony.

Related from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): HTML5’s a Game Changer for Web Apps

Photo of SproutCore Demo courtesy of Wikipedia.