Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 38 seconds

html5logoAs a logistics specialist, your focus needs to be on ensuring a minimum of delay from factory to shelf, a maximum of compliance at the loading dock, retention of your experienced staff, trouble-free account management, and other matters that bear directly on supply-chain efficiency. Computer software is at best a means to those ends, and mostly deserves to be left to the information technology (IT) staffers who devote their full-time attention to it.

Software mediates many of your daily activities, though, and it's increasingly true that "Now Every Company is a Software Company". In this environment, it's only prudent at least to arm yourself with familiarity of basic IT vocabulary. Here's what you ought to know about HTML5:

Web apps vs. native apps vs. mobile vs. ...

Tablets and other portable computers are becoming ubiquitous in distribution centers (DCs). Retail customers are as likely to consult their handhelds as they are to talk over purchases with others strolling the aisles. Procure-to-pay (P2P) and similar automations mean that deliveries and payments are controlled more by mouseclicks than any instruments signed with ink.

Enterprise-class software to fulfill these functions was traditionally built as "native applications" that needed to be installed on each desktop where it was intended to be used. Such an installation was operating-system-specific, that is, an application for a Macintosh shared little if anything with the corresponding application for a Windows machine. This contrasts with "Web applications", where an end user accesses functionality by navigating a conventional Web browser to a sequence of Web addresses or URLs. In principle, Web applications work on whatever particular hardware the end user chooses, and they don't require installation.

"Mobile applications" are generally native applications for mobile handsets. Sometimes, rather confusingly, a Web application is re-packaged as a mobile application for a particular mobile operating system.

The real point in all this for people outside IT is not to confuse "mobilization" with construction of mobile applications. Your business might have urgent needs to provide applications on mobile devices: availability reporters for retail customers, shipment monitors for the supply chain, and so on. Whether those mobility requirements are met with mobile applications, though, or with Web applications accessible from mobile devices, is what IT calls an "implementation detail".

For many years, native applications were far more capable than Web applications; until recently, one could make a case that Web applications were best confined to form-based data entry, marketing "brochure-ware", and rudimentary shopping. Recently, though, with the availability of HTML5, Web applications can do most of what native applications do for enterprise software. This convergence has been exceedingly confusing, because HTML5 isn't a single well-defined object, or even a definite collection, like, say, "the works of Shakespeare". HTML5 is more like "the German language", an evolving community of practices and habits.

This matters to you because it affects how decisions are framed and made. Suppose you determine that you need a new payment report to be accessible to, among other constituencies, DC managers who carry a particular line of tablets. Sometimes IT will receive something like this, launch into an explanation of why the browser for that tablet doesn't "support" HTML5, and conclude that only a native application will do. This is a mistake. More precisely, while native applications are the right answer to many questions, they shouldn't be chosen because of confusion. A particular browser doesn't have to support all of HTML5 for an HTML5-based Web application to be useful on that browser. Some browsers don't support particular aspects of video playback or display animation, for example--but if your requirements for the payment report don't include these relatively advanced graphics, it doesn't matter.

While I work with both native and Web applications, I have a bias in favor of relatively modest, incremental, small-risk developments. In many cases, this means Web applications that exploit HTML5 wisely without "pushing the envelope" too far. This is a great time to make the most of mobility's potential to help you optimize your supply chain. If your IT consultants quote you a price that's too expensive, though, or a term too far in the future, ask them explicitly how far they can get with HTML5 and Web technologies. In many cases, HTML5 can form the basis for a development that gives 95% of a proposal's capabilities for a third the price or cost in time.

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 June 2012
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