HTML5: Whether or Not to Make the Transition

Karl Antle, Managing Partner, ValueStream Labs
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Karl Antle, Managing Partner, ValueStream Labs

If you work in the IT department of a major bank or trading firm, chances are you have heard discussions about HTML5 echoing through the halls. While executives eager to prove their company can keep up with emerging technologies are giving the thumbs up, CIOs are often left to answer the difficult questions of how and when to implement this dramatic upgrade.

"HTML5 sounds exciting, but overhauling an institution’s entire technology stack is a daunting and expensive undertaking"

While some applications can be upgraded without much business risk, others are so critical that they demand longer and more nuanced upgrade paths, adding the burden of supporting legacy technology while integrating components of a new system architecture. Add to this the cost of upgrading technology and the shortage of technology staff trained in HTML5, and the average CIO is faced with a quandary of how to effectively balance the costs and benefits of introducing HTML5 into the organization.

What is HTML5

HTML5 is the latest iteration of the browser-based HTML4 markup language that was last standardized in 1997. After the introduction of HTML4, companies quickly began to incorporate JavaScript, which provided additional functionality through code that could be executed from within the browser. While a significant advance, HTML4/JavaScript lacked key features like the ability to access local system resources, create custom dynamic graphic interfaces, and deliver video content. As a result, users experienced significant lag when interacting with many web applications, as pages had to be refreshed in order to deliver new content.

To address these missing features and deliver a more responsive user experience, banks had to rely on closed environment plugins such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight that suffered from performance issues and required development in the custom language and environment of the plugin. This lack of cross-platform compatibility led to bloated IT budgets to support multiple plugins for each emerging browser and device type.

The goal of HTML5 is to provide a standard for new features for client side applications, including access to local system resources, multi-threading, an improved Canvas for creating custom graphics, and even audio and video playback support. The result is a shift of the user experience away from “page refreshes” to “single page apps”, where user interaction is processed natively in the browser. HTLM5 has essentially created a new browser-based operating system that extends across desktop and mobile, and begins to truly rival the desktop software experience without the need for plugins.

Transitioning to HTML5

HTML5 sounds exciting, but overhauling an institution’s entire technology stack is a daunting and expensive undertaking. Luckily, not all applications are impacted equally – many applications that run in the background will not benefit meaningfully from an HTML upgrade. Applications that involve significant user interaction and content delivery, however, may be significantly improved by the introduction of HTML5, where user centric software development is critical to maintaining a firm’s quality of customer experience.

This provides a basic framework for deciding when and how to implement HTML5. In talking with several large financial institutions, firms seem to be categorizing applications into four groups, each with a different priority for transition:

1. Direct customer web and mobile products: Highest priority (or transition already underway), as most customer-facing products are moved to the browser/mobile and firms seek to rationalize costs for multi-browser, multi-device support

2. Internal desktop software (e.g. pricing and trading systems): High priority, as firms have the ability to leap straight into HTML5 and bypass the previous generation of HTML4 SaaS software which lacked a dynamic user experience

3. Internal Software as a Service (SaaS) (e.g. CRM & timesheet reporting): Generally low priority, as internal users have become accustomed to traditional “page refresh” SaaS solutions for these applications

4. Back office applications (e.g. database and account management systems): Typically the lowest priority due to limited need for dynamic user experience.

Internal vs. External Products

After prioritizing elements of application infrastructure for transition, firms next have to decide whether to take on the task internally with custom software development teams or to utilize emerging vendors offering HTML5 products. While the internal vs. external debate has always been a major question for bank IT departments, two issues make this a new evaluation.

First, the relative scarcity of experience in working with HTML5 - at both financial institutions and traditional large IT consulting firms - means firms will need to spend resources to recruit new personnel and train current staff, or work with smaller development firms that have more experience with HTML5. Second, the increasing importance of user centric applications requires a different type of product experience and, therefore, a greater understanding and appreciation for graphic design, user experience, workflow, rapid prototyping, and user testing. It is no longer sufficient to build an application to a requirements spec. Many financial firms – particularly on the institutional side – lack this skillset and may see particular appeal in external vendors who bring both HTML5 and associated product experience.

Below are some of the most interesting vendors bringing innovative HTML5 products to market within capital markets and banking:

ChartIQ: High-performance HTML5 charting APIs with over 80 technical indicators for stock charts and other asset classes

ClearFactr: A sophisticated browser-based spreadsheet application designed for financial modeling and built entirely in HTML5

OpenFin: Chromium-based container solution, which enables HTML5 apps to run outside the browser with native desktop experience and integrate with legacy non-HTML5 software applications

Cordova: Mobile container solution, which enables HTML5 apps to run with native experience

Developing a Plan of Attack

Armed with the right facts, bank CIOs are in a better place to approach this major shift one step at a time:

1. Take inventory of existing applications and prioritize where HTML5 provides the most benefit

2. Select HTML5 frameworks for developing, building, testing and deploying applications (e.g. Angular, Node, Grunt, Bower, Karma)

3. Decide whether to rely entirely on internet browsers, build an internally-developed HTML5 container, or work with an external container solution and app environment provider

4. Start small projects to upgrade applications to stable HTML5 solutions (either internally developed or vended) and ramp up based on success

5. Continually survey users of new HTML5 applications to determine the operational benefit relative to cost and manage/optimize the transition accordingly.

While hallway discussions about HTML5 being the new wave of financial application development continue, savvy CIOs know they must think of their whole organization as a collection of applications at various points in their lifecycle and must phase their organization’s transition to HTML5 accordingly. Successfully navigating a firm through this transition requires making the cost/benefit equation work, achieving quick wins to maintain consistent upgrade momentum, and developing external technology partnerships that are more important than ever.

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