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Appifying the mobile web

Posted on Tuesday, February 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

There is a lot of talk these days about the rise of mobile applications and app stores and the role of the web. Wired Magazine went as far as to declare the web dead. Appifying the web refers to the growing trend of web sites to create native (mobile) applications which access internet services instead of or in addition to a (mobile-optimized) web site.

There are several different mobile platforms out there: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, webOS, Symbian, Blackberry – just to name a few, and more platforms showing up every other year. To be able to cater for the needs of all potential users when building a native mobile application, it is necessary to build native mobile apps for several different platforms. It is not difficult to see how this can be a daunting task.

The alternative is to build a mobile web application using standard technologies like HTML5, CSS and Javascript. Webkit is proving to be the de-facto standard mobile rendering engine, and the alternatives are not doing badly. So building such a web application once will satisfy a really broad range of customers.

So far, the main arguments for native mobile applications have been the following:

  1. The provide a better and smoother experience from a performance perspective. The application is consistent with the platforms UX guidelines and ‘fits in’.
  2. Native mobile apps allow for background applications. The application can keep running in the background and provide notifications to the user of events.
  3. Native apps are built for a particular device and have more access to the device functionality (e.g. phonebook integration).
  4. Native apps are downloaded and stored on the device. This enables them to work in disconnected mode where they show cached or saved content and synchronize later with a server.
  5. Right now the only way to build great games is through native apps.

There are also strong arguments in favor of mobile web applications:

  1. Cross-platform support. Any smartphone with a decent browser can access the application. That includes a lot of phones today and reduces the maintenance cost of multiple native mobile applications.
  2. Your web application can be updated centrally and quickly. There is no gatekeeper to approve your site and you can release new features on your schedule.
  3. Lower barriers to user-access. A user does not need to get a  specific phone, signup for an account on an app store, download an application just to access your content.
  4. Easier analysis of user behavior using various analytics packages.
  5. Lower entry barrier for developers, since web apps are based on widely-accepted standards which are constantly improving.

Both sides have their strengths and weaknesses, and each business case is different. That said, the third alternative is appified web apps. For many everyday users, it is easier to click CNN icon on their home screen even if it is just a bookmark, than to go to a browser and start typing in about URLs. There are many technologies which are in development to improve the appifying of mobile web apps.

Google’s Native Client (NaCl) project provides a way to run native code safely through the browser. If/When this is ready for mobile devices, I imaging combining this with the standard HTML/CSS/JS to provide more complex applications. Also, WebGL is constantly improving and could eventually harness the steadily rising mobile computing power to enable creation of great games. Apple already has a mobile web apps store and it is also not inconceivable that Google builds a web store for the Android browser similar to that in Chrome. But again, web apps do not need any store for users to access them.

Naturally, native apps will always have their place, but for the rest, an appified web will do just fine.

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