There’s been a lot of talk lately about web apps versus native. It’s not that the question has ever gone away, but just over the past couple of weeks it seems like it’s been called out a bit more in blog posts. There was a Pew Internet report that covered some of the pros/cons of going web or native. Darryl Taft, one of my favorite press guys, did a writeup earlier this month on the landscape of web versus native and some of the companies involved in blending those two worlds. And then today I saw news about Mojito, a hybrid client-server solution from Yahoo, which is part of a wider initiative called Cocktails with the aim of “making web applications feel native“. And that got me thinking about the problems that people are trying to solve when it comes to web apps on mobile devices.
Web apps are in a tough spot when it comes to native, but they’re getting better. As I see it, one of the main problems with web apps is that they aren’t currently better. They’re cheaper, they’re faster (to write), and they allow you to target more platforms, but they’re not better. What’s even worse is that you could argue there are only 2 platforms for mobile that matter right now, Android and iOS. But it was the exact same situation back in 2003/2004 when the web really started coming into its own as an app platform and taking away from traditional native apps on the desktop. The one problem is that back then the web apps were better. They didn’t look as fancy and they didn’t run quite as fast, but there were few things that people needed to do that the web couldn’t do. I remember talking about AIR and mentioning things like drag and drop, file system access, and file type associations. Those were nice, but people didn’t really need them. What made web apps better for end users was the fact that they ran everywhere, were lightweight, always up-to-date and moved with the user so when they switched between the library, school, work, and home, their stuff went with them.
But fast forward to today. We never leave our mobile devices. They’re always with us. Sometimes we change contexts from our mobile device to a desktop/laptop/tablet (think email) but ultimately one of the things that made web apps so great, that they moved with the user, has been completely negated by smartphones. And increasingly, what web apps can’t do is much more important than what web apps couldn’t do 5 years ago. All of the sensors; GPS, Accelerometer, Camera, not to mention the data on the phone, things like contacts, that can be used to make things on the device so much more personal and completely change the experience. Some of the basic ones are available to web apps, and the specs are in place to get more, but there’s still a significant disconnect between what can be done with native apps on the device and what can be done on the mobile web.
To me that’s the biggest worry for the web on mobile devices right now. Sure, performance isn’t ideal, but as the browsers get better and devices get more powerful, that one will fix itself. The technology is there in the form of Canvas, SVG, great JS frameworks, faster JS performance. So the core interactive features work on these devices (with some performance caveats). But the benefits of the web are in many ways nullified by smartphones today. The web needs to come up with something that makes it better once again. And the deck is really, really stacked against it. Think of the distribution model of apps and in-app purchases. I think you could argue that those aren’t great for customers as much as they are great for content creators. Mobile apps are easier to monetize, easier to track, and easier to manage than the web right now. And on one hand, that’s fantastic. Finally designers and developers can directly make money off of their creations. But it’s coming at the expense of the web.
In order for web apps to thrive again the web community needs to start thinking about how mobile web apps can be better and more useful to customers than native apps. I have no doubt that it’s going to happen. How many times have you said to yourself “I don’t want your app, I just want to see the content” while browsing around the web on a mobile browser? So the sentiment from users is there, but for now the web just doesn’t provide enough value for users to get beyond the inflection point. So I’m hoping the conversation starts to move away from web apps not being fast enough, or “feeling native enough” to one of how web apps can be better than native from a user perspective. It’s going to be a fun conversation to watch unfold.Tweet