Pity the programmer. The path used to be so clear. After coming up with the next billion-dollar software idea, the only decision to be made was whether to build it for just Windows or Mac as well. Now the options are far more diverse. Mobile platforms like iOS, Android, and Windows Phone all vie for coders’ attention alongside desktop operating systems and Web hubs such as Facebook. Each one requires time and often a different skill set.
The problem is particularly acute in video games, where iPhone users expect to be able to interact with their friends even if, God forbid, they’re using a different device. Michael Carter, a 27-year-old software engineer, thinks he has a solution in HTML 5. Carter’s company, Game Closure, builds tools that let game developers write one version of their genius idea, then publish it anywhere. In Game Closure’s take on the card-game Hearts, for instance, friends in different cities can play against each other using Facebook, an iPhone, or an Android tablet. “It’s the future,” says Carter of HTML 5.
At its core, HTML 5 is a set of standards that lets Web browsers understand animations, videos, graphics, and other multimedia content without the need to download a plug-in like Adobe’s (ADBE) Flash, which is how most Web videos and graphics are displayed today. Many technologists—including the late Steve Jobs—have criticized Flash for being buggy and draining battery life. The goal of HTML 5, which is gradually making its way into all modern browsers, including ones on mobile devices, is to make sites look and feel just like apps downloaded directly to a phone or desktop. Until recently, that was more of a promise than a reality.
That’s changing in part because of the steamroller effect of Apple’s (AAPL) iPad and iPhone, which don’t run Flash content. Game Closure’s write-once, publish-anywhere tools for game makers attracted Zynga (ZNGA), which offered $100 million to buy the startup, according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to discuss the negotiations. Carter won’t go into specifics other than to acknowledge that “we definitely walked away from a pretty large payout. But we have a larger vision for game development.” He secured $12 million in a venture round led by Highland Capital to build his company instead and plans to make money by licensing his technology or signing revenue-sharing agreements with those who use it.
Zynga is hiring its own HTML 5 engineers to create new titles, as is Electronic Arts (ERTS). Amazon.com (AMZN) debuted an HTML 5 version of its mobile website last year, and in early February IBM (IBM) bought the development company Worklight to create HTML 5 business applications for phones and tablets. “We’re at a technological inflection point,” says Tom Conrad, the executive vice president of product at the music-streaming site Pandora (P), which rebuilt its main website in HTML 5 in 2011.
As HTML 5’s use has expanded, software engineers proficient in it are in short supply. “Just call a recruiter and ask for one—see how long it takes,” says Adam Miller, CEO of Cornerstone Software, which builds applications for HR managers. He says HTML programmers can make up to $250 an hour.
Some worry the rush to HTML 5 could lead to shoddier software. Since the very idea behind HTML 5 is universality, it may discourage developers from tailoring their code to the capabilities of specific devices. Not every phone has an accelerometer that can sense tilting, for instance. “HTML 5 is by far the greatest lowest common denominator ever invented,” says Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, a note-taking application. “But it’s still the lowest common denominator.”