In all fairness, Mark was not blaming HTML5 for a failed mobile strategy. In fact, he was quite complimentary of it and admits that, even now, it gets more hits than the iOS and Android apps combined and he's excited about it for the future. This squares quite nicely with what what Jakob Nielsen wrote in his blog http://www.useit.com/alertbox/mobile-sites-apps.html where he said...
"Mobile apps currently have better usability than mobile sites, but forthcoming changes will eventually make a mobile site the superior strategy." --Jakob Nielsen
So what really happened? Is Mark right or wrong and what does it mean for startups? That's a pretty multi-facetted question so let's unpack it.
It's time to stop thinking of Facebook as a startup.
Facebook was a startup back in 2004. It's been 8 years. Even if you go back to the first iPhone (2007), that's 5 years they've had to start getting this right. Mark said they'd only been working on mobile for two years. A short timeframe, true, but they are not a startup. They are a company with massive amounts of revenue and man power taking their first steps into a mobile space. If you are a startup, stop comparing yourself of Facebook for any purpose other than aspirations of greatness.
Their initial strategy of HTML5 was correct.
The Lean Startup
(a great book for entrepreneurs) talks about creating an MVP (minimum viable product). If you are a startup, you need to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can, as cheaply as can. Unless you're some complete genius in mobile usability and the needs of all your users (presuming you even know who your real audience will end up being), there is a good chance that your first steps are going to be the stuttering steps of a toddler with a lot of falls along the way. If you're thinking you're special right now and this doesn't apply to your startup, I'm smiling at your hubris.
Native apps cost a lot more to create and maintain because their developers cost more and you then have to support multiple platforms. Competent HTML developers are much cheaper and can deploy their work much quicker. This makes the learning feedback loop much cheaper and much quicker. Throwing money at native apps first makes about as much sense as buying a Lamborghini for a first-time, teenage driver. Something is going to wrong and it's going to be very expensive.
Right tech, Wrong time.
HTML5 is going to win. Make no mistake there. Jakob Nielsen sees the writing on that wall. Eventually, it's all going to come down to HTML5 Responsive Design templates for the masses and custom tailored HTML5 mobile experiences for the elite. The problems is, that time is probably another 2 years away. On iOS, using an iPhone 4s, the HTML5 Facebook was almost as good as the native app that was released. The biggest differences were in the speed of the transitions and their frame rates. Android is another story. It's frame rates and smoothness on web animation are only just now beginning to approach the level of polish we see on iPhone 4. But!!!
In another 2 years, it's not going to matter! Probably even in one year thought it will take two years to clear out the utter crap that's in the wild now (BlackBerry, Windows Phone7, I'm looking at you).
The near future
Facebook's timing for an HTML5 strategy was unfortunate. Had they started down that road now or in one year, Moore's Law dictates that they'd be singing a different song. For a startup just getting going now, you find yourself in a grey area. We are on the cusp of an age where mobile broadband will be lighting fast and web performance on devices will be beyond reproach. We are not far from it now.
The HTML version of Facebook was perfectly usable and was far-and-away a better experience than their desktop site, but this new one has more spit polish and from a UX perspective, that's not small. The question for startups becomes, are those little differences that cost so much more to create and maintain, enough to justify starting out
on a native interface? I would argue that until you have proven to yourselves that you've built the right product, learned your lesses, and pivoted to a fortuitous future that only lacks a spit-polish, NO! It would make more sense to try multiplying a three dollar bill by a bucket of fried chicken!
If you have not yet, I would urge you to listen to what he has to say on the matter and then read my stuff. The relevant part starts at 11 minutes in and goes for about 5 minutes. http://techcrunch.com/2012/09/11/mark-zuckerberg-our-biggest-mistake-with-mobile-was-betting-too-much-on-html5/
If you think I'm nuts, awesome! Tell me so, let's talk about it. If you think I'm right, do the same! But above all... go, and be brilliant!